Plantain squirrel, Tupai kampong Callosciurus notatus
Identified by two cream and black stripes on the sides of its body. It is commonly mistaken for the common treeshrew (Tupaia glis) but the plantain squirrel has a bushier tail and a more rounded face than the common tree shrew. In the city, it is easy to spot them running on cable wires between electric poles to cross from one place to another. It feeds mainly on fruits such as jackfruits and mangoes.
Common treeshrew, Tupai muncung besar Tupaia glis
It has reddish-orange brown to olive-brown fur. It is commonly mistaken for the plantain squirrel however, the long and pointed snout indicates that it is a treeshrew. Agile in trees but more often found on the ground. Common treeshrews are territorial. When two tree shrews are chasing one another, it is an aggressive territorial chase.
Local name: Tupai kampong, tupai kampong, tupai merah, tupai pinang
Activity pattern: Diurnal
Ecological function: Seed disperser
Level in food chain: Primary consumer
Feeding behaviour: Omnivore
Food items: Fruits, sometimes insects
Microhabitat: Shrubs and tree holes
Local name: Lotong kelabu
Activity pattern: Diurnal
Ecological function: Seed disperser
Level in food chain: Primary and secondary consumer
We might not all recognize them, and we might not recognize all of them but fig trees are among the native flora that have come to settle in cities with us.
Some are intentionally planted in urban areas, while others continue to appear spontaneously, self-sowing, even in the less than ideal habitat that is the city landscape.
Fig plants belong to the genus Ficus and there are over 700 species of fig species spread throughout the tropical and subtropical regions of the world. Throughout Peninsular Malaysia alone, there are around a hundred Ficus species native to the peninsula.
This large group of flowering plants has a diverse growth pattern and, depending on species, can be
epiphytes (plants which live on the surface of other plants for support)
In the wild, these plants are important sources of food and shelter for wildlife. In some natural ecosystems, they are so important that they are described as keystone species.
Keystone species are organisms in a community that have a great influence on other members, regardless of their actual size or number. Although all organisms will have a role to play in a given habitat, the presence of keystone species can be critical to the welfare of the other organisms.
But what role can these plants play in cities?
The Ficus species that survive in cities tend to be those that come from relatively dry and exposed natural habitats like the edges of forests. Or they are the kinds that are capable of sprouting (from seeds dropped by animals) from crevices, to cling to and grow on vertical surfaces like stone walls.
While not all species of native figs can tolerate city conditions, those that do, share the features that make these groups of plants valuable in the wild. They produce fruits that a large variety of urban wildlife, including squirrels, shrews, primates, bats, and fruit-eating birds, find palatable.
The dense crowns and surface roots of fig trees on the other hand, are of value to urban residents where they can offer shade and stabilize and enrich soil cover. Fallen leaf litter decompose and return nutrients to soil and the spreading, surface roots of the trees help prevent soil erosion by improving the soil structure.
Fig trees will also do what trees do so well—provide spaces (holes, branches) for animals to build shelter and nests. In return, animals spread the seeds from fig fruits far and wide.
But there is one animal, an insect, with which figs have a somewhat unique relationship. One which determines how it flowers and fruits, thereby helping make it the important food source that it is.
The very old tale of the fig and the wasp
For each fig species, there is a single wasp species capable of transferring the flowers’ pollen to allow the plant to reproduce. The wasp species in turn relies solely on that fig flower to complete its life cycle (to live in and lay its eggs). One would not survive without the other.
As important as these two groups of plants and insects are to each other, their interdependent relationship affects other life forms as well.
The reason that fig plants are considered keystone species is tied to this relationship with wasps. In order for there to be enough chances for the short-lived wasps to find flowers or fruits to live in, individual plants produce flowers and fruits at different times throughout a year.
This means that there is almost always a fruiting fig tree. Even when other plants in some forest communities fail to produce fruit or are not in season, fruit eating mammals and birds would be able to find a supply of food at a fig plant.
Nature in cities
The fig tree is a good example of a tree that is traditionally popular, capable of withstanding urban conditions and has ecological significance (for both humans and wildlife).
Lok, A. F. S. L., W.F. Ang, B.Y.Q. Ng, T.M. Leong, C.K. Yeo & H.T.W. Tan (2013). Native fig species as a keystone resource for the Singapore urban environment. Singapore: Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research.
Shanahan, M., So, S., Compton, S. G., & Corlett, R. (2001). Fig-eating by vertebrate frugivores: a global review. Biological Reviews, 76(4), 529-572.
A creeping plant from the pea flower family. Its leaves respond to touch by drooping or closing up in defense. Each leaf is a compound leaf made up of many leaflets. Its flowers are purple-pink, ball-shaped and form clusters at the ends of stalks. It produces pods which bear seeds.
Status: Least concern, Introduced (Central and South America)
A plant from the daisy or sunflower family that grows well in shady areas. Its leaves are arranged in a circle at the lower part of the stem. It has tiny pale purple flowers at the top of erect stalks. Its fruits are small and dry with hair-like structures to attach to animals or people.
An attractive wildflower, originally introduced as an ornamental plant. However, the plant’s sap is poisonous. Its leaves have an elongated oval shape, a pointed tip and tooth-like margins. They are arranged in a spiral at the stem base. A single star-shaped flower with five petals grows on a stalk.
A common roadside plant that does not need a lot of soil or water to grow. It is a plant that helps nourish soils. Its leaves are arrow-shaped and have tooth-like margins. The compound flowers are yellow and white, at the top of long stems. Fruits are small and dry and have hair-like structures.
Status: Least concern, Introduced (Central America)
A plant from the daisy or sunflower family. It is used by beekeepers as a source of nectar and pollen for bees. Its lower leaves are simple but upper leaves are compound with 4-6 leaflets. Bidens alba has 5-8 ‘petals’ longer than 1cm long, Bidens pilosa has 4-7 ‘petals’ that are less than 1 cm long.
Status: Least concern, Introduced (Central/South America)
A plant that grows very close to the ground in open, grassy areas. Its leaves are elliptic with tiny hairs on the leaf margin. Its pale pink flowers cluster on top of a fuzzy structure at the end of the stem. It is the host plant of the beautiful Peacock Pansy butterfly.
A common plant that has a tendency to grow in cracks near drains where it can get enough moisture. Its leaves are narrow and oval. Its four-petalled flowers are white with a purple tinge, very small, and often grow in pairs. Fruits are tiny capsules with numerous seeds.
Status: Least concern, Introduced (Tropical Africa)
An upright plant with very small leaves and flowers. The leaves are very narrow and arranged alternately on the stem. Its flowers are white, bloom in long clusters and produce black hairy seeds. Its common name, milkwort, is attributed to the belief that cows that eat more of it will produce more milk.
Status: Least concern, Introduced (Tropical America, Caribbean)
Habit: Annual herbaceous
Cultivation: Planted by seeds or transplanting
Ecological Function: Unknown
Pollinators: Possibly large bees and small flies
Soil: Clay, loam
Moisture: Moist, well-drained soil, does not tolerate dry areas