Ecological implications of pedogenesis and geochemistry of ultramafic soils in Kinabalu Park (Malaysia)

Document Type


Date of Original Version



In Sabah, Malaysia, ultramafic rock outcrops are widespread (totalling 3500 km2, one of the main outcrops in the tropical zone), and predominantly of the peridotite type. However, strongly serpentinised peridotite is also locally common, particularly along fault lines in the Mt. Kinabalu area. This study aimed to determine the extent of chemical variation in ultramafic soils in relation to the degree of serpentinisation and the weathering intensity, and consequent potential ecological implications linked to resulting soil chemical fertility. It was hypothesized that young soils and soils derived from bedrock with a significant degree of serpentinisation strongly differ from typical Geric Ferralsols and result in soil chemistries with more adverse properties to plant life (e.g. low availability of the essential nutrients N, P, K and Ca and high concentrations of potentially phytotoxic Mg and Ni). Ultramafic soil diversity linked to the age of the soil or the degree of serpentinisation would thus be a main factor of plant diversity and distribution. The diverse topography of Kinabalu Park (ultramafic soils present between 400 and 2950 m asl) has given rise to high pedodiversity with the broad overall ultramafic soil types being: (i) deep laterite soils (Geric Ferralsols); (ii) moderately deep montane soils (Dystric Cambisols) with mor humus; (iii) shallow skeletal soils at high altitude (Eutric Cambisols Hypermagnesic); and (iv) bare serpentinite soils (Hypereutric Leptosols Hypermagnesic) at low altitude (200–700 m asl). Leptosols on serpentinite and Eutric Cambisols have the most extreme chemical properties in the whole Kinabalu Park area both with very high Mg:Ca molar quotients, with either high available Ni (Cambisols) or high pH (Leptosols). These soils host specific and adapted vegetation (high level of endemism) that tolerates geochemical peculiarities, including Ni hyperaccumulators. Geric Ferralsols present far less chemical constraints than Hypermagnesian Cambisols soils to the vegetation and host a tall and very diverse rainforest, not so different than that on non-ultramafic soils. It therefore appears that altitude, soil age and degree of bedrock serpentinisation are the main determining factors of soil properties: the qualifier “ultramafic” alone is not sufficient to define soil geochemical and ecological conditions in the Kinabalu Park area, probably more than in any other ultramafic region in the world.

Publication Title, e.g., Journal