The Ultramafic Flora of Sabah

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🪨With over 3500 km2 of ultramafic rock outcrops in Sabah (4.6% of the total landmass of the state), Malaysia has one of the largest surface expressions of ultramafic rock, and one of the most species-rich floras occupying these outcrops, in the world. Ultramafic rock occupies < 1% of the land surface of the earth and these outcrops are renowned as centers of high plant diversity-supporting high levels of plant endemism. Over 1500 plant species have been documented on ultramafic outcrops around Mount Kinabalu, of which a large percentage is endemic to either Mount Kinabalu or Borneo. Sabah is thus recognized as a major locus of floral diversity on ultramafic outcrops, but the full plant diversity and ecology remain largely unknown due to a lack of focused research.

Biodiversity in many areas of Sabah is severely threatened by land-use conversion and, because many plant species only occur in a single or a few ultramafic sites, impacts on the ecosystems that support them could result in their extinction. Ultramafic rocks are widespread and extensive in Sabah (Malaysia) covering an area of approximately 3500 km2 (Proctor et al. 1988; Repin 1998). The most significant ultramafic outcrops are (west to east): Mount Kinabalu, Hampuan and Kulung Hill, Morou Porou, Bidu-Bidu Hills, Meliau Range, Mount Tavai, and Mount Silam. In Sabah, ultramafics are found from sea level up to nearly 3100 m a.s.l. The flora of Sabah is very rich in plant species, with an estimated 8000 higher plants occurring within the boundaries of this state (Wong 1992; Sugau unpublished 2011).

Compared to other ultramafic floras around the world, Sabah is indeed extremely species-rich with 3529 species recorded on ultramafic outcrops. The ultramafic floras of Indonesia and the Philippines are probably also very species-rich, but insufficient information is known to draw any figures at this stage. The flora of Kinabalu Park has been better studied than any other area in the region as it is the most species-rich area on earth in terms of species density, with 5000+ plant species in an area <1200 km2 (Beaman 2005). A large percentage of the Kinabalu flora is endemic to either that site alone or to Borneo in general.

The number of plant species occurring on ultramafic substrates in Kinabalu Park is not precisely known, but when enumerating the plant species collected from localities that are known to be entirely ultramafic (Hempuen Hill, Bambangan River, Marai Parai, Pig Hill, Mt. Tambuyukon, Penataran, Lohan River, Kulung Hill), added to those for which ‘ultramafic’ has been noted during collection a total of 1731 plant species (excluding ferns) is certainly ultramafic (data from Beaman and Beaman database 2012). This is likely an underestimate as all localities that are partly ultramafic are excluded from the analysis. Mount Kinabalu and Sabah is therefore a major locus of ultramafic plant diversity; however, it is one of the least studied of such regions in the world.🪨

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