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Tropics’ tallest tree found in Malaysia

Rainforest emergent tree in Borneo.

Emergent rainforest tree in Borneo.

  • A yellow meranti in Malaysian Borneo has been crowned by researchers the tallest tree in the tropics.
  • The giant, which measures 89.5 meters (293.6 feet), is 1.2 meters (4 feet) taller than the previously record holder, another yellow meranti from Sabah’s Tawau Hills National Park.
  • The tree was spotted during a research project that used an airborne LiDAR scanner to create 3D images of forest structure.

A yellow meranti (Shorea faguetiana) in Sabah, a state in Malaysian Borneo, has been crowned by researchers the tallest tree in the tropics.

The giant, which measures 89.5 meters (293.6 feet), is 1.2 meters (4 feet) taller than the previously record holder, another yellow meranti from Sabah’s Tawau Hills National Park.

The tree — located in Maliau Basin Conservation Area — was spotted during a research project that used an airborne LiDAR scanner to create 3D images of forest structure. A team then visited the tree and sent up a climber with a tape measure to confirm its height.

“We’d put it at 89.5m on average,” said lead researcher David Coomes, a botanist at Cambridge University, in a statement. “It’s a smidgen taller than the record, which makes it quite probably the tallest tree recorded in the Tropics!”

The world’s tallest tree is a coast redwood in California’s Redwood National Park. It stands 115 meters.

Lidar rendering of the tree by Michele Dalponte

However, the new record isn’t likely to stand for long. In April, a research team led by Greg Asner of the Carnegie Institution for Science mapped Sabah’s forests in their entirety with LiDAR, collecting a vast amount of data including tree height.

Nonetheless, the discovery provides an opportunity to highlight threats facing yellow meranti, which is highly sought by loggers and has been listed by the IUCN as “endangered”, as well as the potential of LiDAR to shed light on forest ecology.

“Conserving these giants is really important,” said Coomes. “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.”

“LiDAR scanning together with digital photography and hyperspectral scanners now provide us with unprecedented information on the state of the forest.”

Waterfall in Maliau Basin. Coomes’ project also involved and the South-East Asia Rainforest Research Partnership and the NERC Airborne Remote Sensing Facility. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

The find comes as Sabah undertakes a major effort to better understand, protect, and restore its forests, after nearly a half century of destructive practices, including intense logging and conversion of forests to oil palm plantations.

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

Unding Jami, a local tree-climber, took on the task of scaling the tree and measuring. According to the University of Cambridge when he reached the top and measured the tree, he texted to the researchers below: “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.” Photo by Stephanie Law

Sabah’s Forestry Department, which once presided over large-scale forest damage, is now overseeing those protection and restoration efforts. It is also partnering with research projects, including the initiatives led by Coomes and Asner.

“The Sabah government is extremely proud of this discovery, which lays credence to the fact that our biodiversity is of global importance,” said Sam Mannan, Director of the Sabah Forestry Department. “Our international collaboration, as in this case, has brought great scientific dividends to the state and we shall continue to pursue such endeavors.”

Forest dragon in Tawau Hills Park, the location of a meranti that held the world’s tallest tropical tree crown until the Maliau Basin discovery. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.