Tallest Tree In The Tropics Found In The Remote Malaysian Rainforest

The tree is a Yellow Meranti tree, which players can grow in the game 'Minecraft'. Stephanie Law/University of Cambridge
Josh Davis 10 Jun 2016, 10:23

Towering above the rainforest canopy, researchers have discovered the world’s tallest known tropical tree. Coming in at an incredible 89.5 meters (293.6 feet) tall, the colossal tree has been found growing in a remote region of the Malaysian rainforest. Avid fans of "Minecraft" may recognize the giant for another reason, however, as the Yellow Meranti is one species of tree that can be grown in the game.

The tree was discovered by researchers at the University of Cambridge, who were conducting reconnaissance flights over a patch of forest in the Maliau Basin Conservation Area, also known as “Sabah’s Lost World”, as the remoteness of the region has meant the forests have remained relatively untouched. The team was initially using a LiDAR scanner to produce awesome 3D images of the forest canopy to map the area's biodiversity and image each tree, when the giant stood out.

The LiDAR image showing the forest canopy, with the tallest tree rising above the rest. Michele Dalponte/University of Cambridge

The only way to accurately measure the leviathan’s height, however, is the wonderfully unsophisticated method of climbing up to the top, and then dropping a tape measure down to the bottom. But this doesn’t come without its risks.

“I don’t have time to take photos using a good camera because there’s an eagle around that keeps trying to attack me and also lots of bees flying around,” came the slightly panicked text from Unding Jami, expert tree climber, after he reached the crown of the tree.

One of the researchers, Unding Jami, scaling the tree. Stephanie Law/University of Cambridge

But the climb was successful, and the team was able to confirm that the tree is probably the tallest in the tropics, beating the last record holder, which was another Yellow Meranti, by 1.2 meters (3.9 feet). Equivalent to 20 double decker buses, it is a true giant, and probably at the limit of what tropical trees can reach. “Trees in temperate regions, like the giant redwoods, can grow up to 30 meters taller; yet around 90 meters seems to be the limit in the Tropics,” explains Dr. David Coomes, lead researcher. “No-one knows why this should be the case.”

While the Meranti tree (Shorea acuminatissima) reaches impressive heights as Coomes mentions, it is still far short of the overall record holder for the world’s tallest tree. That title goes to a giant coastal redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) growing in Redwood National and State Park, California. Towering at an astonishing 115.61 meters (379.3 feet) tall, the location of the tree – which has been called Hyperion – has been kept secret to try and protect it from tourists. Why trees in temperate forests can reach heights so much taller than those in tropical forests is still not really known.

 

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