Who eats figs? Everybody

“The proper way to eat a fig, in society,” wrote DH Lawrence, “is to split it in four, holding it by the stump, and open it, so that it is a glittering, rosy, moist, honied, heavy-petalled four-petalled flower. … But the vulgar way, is just to put your mouth to the crack, and take out the flesh in one bite.”

I’m a vulgar fig-eater. Few things give me more pleasure than when I bite into a ripe one and eat it up. With the right fig, the flavours can be so intense, so rich that it seems clear to me that no other fruit can compare. But the figs I eat are of just one of nearly a thousand fig species, and what eats the others is really interesting.


I wrote a bit about this in my last blog post. It featured a piece I wrote in 1997 after I spent some in Borneo to study wild figs (Ficus species) and the animals that eat them for my MSc degree. Within a year I was in Borneo again, this time for doctoral studies (you can read some of my other posts about those days here and here).

One of the papers [PDF] I wrote back then provided a global review of the ways Ficus species interact with the animals that eat their figs. Those animals form an astounding list, as I showed that at least one-tenth of all bird species and one-sixth of all mammals eat figs.

The full dataset was too big to go into the journal paper so I put it online on a site that sadly disappeared from the Internet in 2009. I’m happy to say that the full dataset is now back online here.

There you can find fully-referenced records, from over 75 countries, of which animals eat the figs of 260 ‘good’ Ficus species (that’s about one-third of the total). You can also find records of the fig species in the diets of over 1280 species of bird, mammal, reptile and fish.*

The paper explains this diversity and assesses the roles these animals play as Ficus seed dispersers. The dataset supports previous claims that Ficus is the most important plant genus for tropical fruit eating animals, but it also shows that some figs are indeed more equal than others.

Reference: Shanahan, M., So, S., Compton, S.G. & Corlett, R.T. (2001). Fig-eating by Vertebrate Frugivores: A Global Review. Biological Reviews 76:529-572. [PDF].

*The title for this post comes from a line in this paper: Janzen, D.H. 1979. How to be a Fig. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 10: 13-51.

4 thoughts on “Who eats figs? Everybody

  1. Beautiful! Mike I love the way you bring in small excerpts from famous authors like Lawrence, Shakespeare, and more.

    I loved reading this post also 🙂

    Wishing you best!

  2. I love Figs too Mike actually I was reviewing your postings for some info. related to the health benefits of rainforest figs if humans were to actually eat some and or provide a breakdown of the nutrition found in these specific figs…but…wow…Mike their is zero information related to humans eating rainforest type figs nobody sells them, they must be very difficult to harvest. They are available if the picker is willing to climb150 feet and crawl around on the poopy upper fruit laden branches. It also should be noted the shelf life of these types of figs is likely mostly unknown as far as keeping in a frig. (if kept in outside conditions 85 F and 75% humidity I don’t believe they would last 24 hours before they go rotten) It is indeed a lack of information, as far as taste, quality and nutritional breakdown, perhaps this will change but please be careful fighting the monkeys for their figs is a loose, loose proposition this much is sure.

    • Hi Gary. People do eat wild figs of species other than the farmed fig in many parts of Africa and Asia. I have tasted several wild figs in Borneo but none of them was very pleasant.

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