Drumroll please: The world’s Tallest Tropical Tree is found in Sabah
The newly found tallest tree in the tropics rises to a height of 89.5 meters. Photo Credit: Stephanie Law at Cambridge University
It stands at 89.5 meters tall in Sabah’s Maliau Basin Conservation Area. That height makes this Yellow Meranti (Shorea faguetiana) – a species endemic to Borneo, peninsular Malaysia and parts of Thailand – probably the tallest tree in the tropics anywhere in the world, according to conservation scientists from Cambridge University, who have recently discovered it together with the Sabah Forestry Department.
The previous record-holder was also in Malaysia: another stately Yellow Meranti rising to a height of 88.3m in the Tawau Hills National Park.
The tree in Sabah stands on a slope, which makes it 91 meters tall on one side and 88 meters tall on the other. Its recorded height of 89.5 meters is the calculated average. How tall is that? It’s as tall as London’s Big Ben, give or take a meter or two, the researchers explain. Or 65 people standing on one another’s shoulders. Or 20 double-decker buses piled on top of each other.
In any event, the tree is as tall as any can grow in the tropics. “Trees in temperate regions, like the giant redwoods, can grow up to 30m taller; yet around 90m seems to be the limit in the Tropics. No-one knows why this should be the case,” notes David Coomes, who works at Cambridge University’s Department of Plant Sciences and was the lead researcher on a team that spotted the tree by help of a 3D scanner, which was hooked up to a laser rangefinder on the underside of small plane and can map large swaths of rainforest canopy in great detail.
“Interestingly, there may be more of this tree in cyberspace than in the world. It’s one of the trees that players can grow in the computer game Minecraft,” he adds. “Conserving these giants is really important. Some, like the California redwoods, are among the largest and longest-living organisms on earth. Huge trees are crucial for maintaining the health of the forest and its ecology. But they are difficult to find, and monitor regularly.”
Measuring the exact height of the tree was no simple matter. It had to be done with a tape measure so someone had to climb the tree to its very top. The task in Sabah fell to Unding Jami, an expert local tree-climber. On duly completing the measurements, however, Unding found that he couldn’t dawdle to take in the view and snap some nice pictures. That’s because he came under attack repeatedly … from resident bees and a hungry eagle. “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,” he texted to the researchers at ground level.
The tree stands in what is popularly known as “Sabah’s Lost World,” a remote and protected conservation area home to a stunning biodiversity of flora and fauna. “The discovery of this particular tree comes at a critical moment because, set against a backdrop of decades of forest loss, the Sabah government has decided to protect and restore a huge tract of heavily logged forest just to the east of the Maliau Basin,” Coomes says. “It’s exciting to know that these iconic giants of the forest are alive and well so close to this major restoration project.”