Evolution peaks on tropical mountain in Borneo

A group of scientists that includes biologists from Leiden have discovered 160 previously unknown species of plants and animals on Mount Kinabalu in Borneo. Some of these species have proved to be relatively young. The discoveries of the expedition of the Naturalis Biodiversity Center were published on 12 August in Nature.

New species of leeches, beetles and begonias

Biologists on expedition on Mount Kinabalu.

Biologists on expedition on Mount Kinabalu.

The over 4,000-metre high Gunung Kinabalu, as the mountain is called in Malay, is home to hundreds of unique plants and animals, known as endemic species. As far as is known, they are only found in this region. Together with 45 other experts, biologists Vincent Merckx and Menno Schilthuizen, associated with Naturalis and Leiden University, studied the endemic species that they discovered on the Dutch–Malaysian expedition on Mount Kinabalu. Those include new species of beetles, leeches and begonias.


Species younger than the mountain

The leech Tritetrabdella kinabaluensis is a newly discovered species. Photograph: H. Kappes.

The leech Tritetrabdella kinabaluensis is a newly discovered species. Photograph: H. Kappes.

The team collected tens of thousands of plants, animals and mushrooms, including ferns, mosses, orchids, snails, worms, insects, spiders and frogs. Using DNA, they determined what species these endemic organisms descended from. The researchers demonstrate that most of the species are between 1 and 1.5 million years old. That is many times younger than the rock that makes up the mountain, which solidified about six million years ago. 


Adapted to colder conditions

The Euphaea basalis is a dragonfly that lives exclusively along streams on the mountain. Photograph: Jan van Tol.

The Euphaea basalis is a dragonfly that lives exclusively along streams on the mountain. Photograph: Jan van Tol.

The scientists also show that a number of the unique species are immigrants from areas as distant as the Himalayas or China that have adapted to the cooler living environment. The other endemic species descend from local species found at the foot of the mountain and have adapted to the colder conditions over time. A number of species, such as a newly discovered jumping spider even turn out to be ‘just’ 100,000 years old. That is quite young in evolutionary terms.


Mountain a breeding ground for evolution

The results of this research show that the mountain is a breeding ground for evolution. ‘It is thought that tropical mountains are also places where very old species survive, but our research shows that it is mainly a matter of new species,’ says Schilthuizen. New species come into being on top of the mountain and often descend from species that already lived in similar environments.

Mount Kinabalu. Photograph: J. Kong/Sabah Parks.

Mount Kinabalu. Photograph: J. Kong/Sabah Parks.

‘This knowledge is important for the protection of endemic species. There you can see to what extent species are limited in their abilities to evolve along with climate change, allowing you to make predictions for the future.’

(13 augustus 2015 - Naturalis Biodiversity Centre)

See also

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Biology (7 specialisaties)

Last Modified: 01-09-2015