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Researchers Discover World’s Tallest Known Tropical Tree in Sabah’s “Lost World”

A 293.6-foot endangered yellow meranti tree on the island of Borneo was discovered by scanning its forests

Unding Jami ascends the world's tallest tropical tree to get a measurement (Cambridge University/Stephanie Law)
smithsonian.com

Recently, conservation scientists from Cambridge University were scanning an area of forest in Malaysia’s Maliau Basin Conservation Area in the state of Sabah on the island of Borneo when they picked up something remarkable. The LiDAR scanner they were using to record the biodiversity of an area known as Sabah’s "lost world", one of Malaysia’s last areas of wilderness, showed a huge tree sticking out of the forest.

According to a press release, the conservationists located the big tree on the ground, and sent Unding Jami, a local tree climbing expert to the top with a tape measure, still the most accurate way to gauge the height of a big tree. Jami texted down that the height of the globally endangered yellow meranti tree, Shorea faguetiana, was 89.5 meter or 293.6 feet tall, a new world record for a tropical tree, beating out the previous record holder, an 88.3 meter yellow meranti in nearby Tawau Hills National Park.

Sadly, Jami didn’t get any good images from the top. “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, according to the release.

The tree is not even close to the record tallest tree in the world, which is currently Hyperion, a 369-foot coast redwood in California’s Redwood National Park. Still, the big meranti is quite impressive for a tropical tree.

“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,” explains lead researcher David Coomes in the release. “No one knows why this should be the case.”

Alice Klein at New Scientist says that finding giant trees like this one gives hope that what remains of the tropical forest can be preserved, pointing out that the government of the Malaysian state of Sabah recently announced plans to restore thousands of acres of degraded forest.

Unlike many temperate forests, which can take hundreds of years to reach climax or old-growth status, Coomes says that tropical forests can often recover from over logging and become mature ecosystems within 50 to 100 years without much effort.

Still, as he points out in the press release, that doesn’t give loggers carte blanche to take down, large, mature trees which take longer to regenerate.

“Conserving these giants is really important. Some, like the California redwoods, are among the largest and longest-living organisms on earth,” he says. “Huge trees are crucial for maintaining the health of the forest and its ecology. But they are difficult to find, and monitor regularly, which is where planes carrying LiDAR can help.”

In fact, Coomes says LiDAR imaging can help researchers identify and assess the 2.5 billion acres of degraded forest around the world that could potentially be restored with a little help from humans.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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