Tallest tree in the tropics discovered in Malaysia

The endangered tree stands at 293.6 feet tall and is, thankfully, near an area slated for restoration and protection.

During a high-tech flyover of a forest known as "Sabah’s Lost World" in Malaysia's Maliau Basin Conservation Area, conservation scientists from the University of Cambridge and the Sabah Forestry Department were using a LiDAR scanner to create a detailed map of the rainforest canopy. And the data revealed something striking: A tree that was much, much taller than the others.

So they tracked down said tree and sent a really excellent tree climber up its trunk with a tape measure to see just how tall this creature is – because although you can use electronic wizardry to map a forest from a plane, you still need a man and a ruler to actually measure a tree. So up he went, a local tree-climbing guru by the name of Unding Jami. Upon reaching the top, he confirmed the tree’s height and also texted a bit of a status update: “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.”

Well of course! At 293.6 feet (89.5 meters) there's bound to be bees and birds of prey. 293.6 feet – the height of 20 London double-decker buses or 65 people stacked up head-to-toe. The tree is a Yellow Meranti (Shorea faguetiana). It is is classified as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature "Red list," but is familiar to many as it is one of the species that can be grown in the game Minecraft.

“It’s a smidgen taller than the record, which makes it quite probably the tallest tree recorded in the Tropics!" says lead researcher Dr. David Coomes, from Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences. "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.”

Prior to this discovery, the previous record-holding champion tropical tree was another Yellow Meranti from the Tawau Hills National Park.

But what is perhaps the most encouraging part of the discovery is that the local government is working to restore and protect areas that have been suffering from deforestation. Stories like this all too often include a "but the future doesn't look good ..." plotline; but this tropical giant looks like it has a fighting chance.

“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," says Coomes. "It’s exciting to know that these iconic giants of the forest are alive and well so close to this major restoration project.” Amen!

Dr. Coomes narrates (in his perfect British plant scientist accent) the short video below describing the discovery. Totally worth a watch:

Tags: Malaysia | Nature | Trees

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