The World's Tallest Tropical Tree Is Longer Than a Football Field

The world's tallest tropical tree on record is a giant, measuring an astonishing 330 feet (100.8 meters) from ground to sky — a height that's more than five bowling lanes stacked end to end.

This tree, likely also the world's tallest flowering plant, lives in a rainforest in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, according to scientists from the United Kingdom and Malaysia. It's so high-reaching, it's no wonder the scientists named it "Menara," the Malay word for "tower."

For those who can't make it to Malaysian Borneo in person, the researchers have made a 3D model of the tree, which people can flip and twist online. [Nature's Giants: Photos of the Tallest Trees on Earth]

LiDAR + UAV model of Menara by Alexander Shenkin on Sketchfab

By studying Menara, researchers hope to understand how trees grow so tall, and if any factors keep them from growing taller, they said.

Menara belongs to a tropical tree species known as yellow meranti (Shorea faguetiana), a member of the Dipterocarpaceae family that thrives in the humid lowland rainforests of Southeast Asia. Previous record holders for tallest tropical tree came from this region and from the Shorea genus.

The team came across Menara by using laser technology known as light detection and ranging, or lidar. In essence, an aircraft carrying a lidar device flew overhead as laser pulses were shot down and then reflected back when they hit the forest canopy and ground, providing data for a topological map.

After reviewing the data, the researchers trekked out to see Menara in August 2018. There, they scanned the tree with a terrestrial laser to create high-resolution 3D images, and they also snapped images from above with a drone. A local climber, Unding Jami, of the Southeast Asia Rainforest Research Partnership, scaled the tree in January 2019 to measure its exact height with a tape measure.

"It was a scary climb, so windy, because the nearest trees are very distant," Jami said in a statement. "But honestly, the view from the top was incredible. I don't know what to say other than it was very, very, very amazing!"

Jami's feat reveals that Menara is likely the tallest flowering plant in the world, as it's taller than the previous record holder; a eucalyptus tree (Eucalyptus regnans) in Tasmania that's 326 feet (99.6 m) tall.

Menara is the tallest tropical tree on record. (Image credit: Alexander Shenkin)

Not counting its roots, Menara weighs nearly 179,700 lbs. (81,500 kilograms). But just 5% of its mass comes from its 131-foot-wide (40 m) crown. The other 95% is in its trunk, the researchers found. Moreover, the stem is extremely straight, with its center of mass at 92 feet (28 m) above the ground, which is just 2 feet (0.6 m) off from its central vertical axis. This indicates that the tree is highly symmetrical and well-balanced, even though it's sitting on a slope, the researchers said.

That said, Menara may be vulnerable to wind damage, but so far it has been spared, thanks to its sheltered location in a valley, the researchers said.

Despite the tree's immense height, it's facing an uphill battle: Several factors may prevent trees like Menara from growing taller, such as the challenge of the tree carrying water up to its tallest branches. And, while there may be taller tropical trees out there, they're probably not too much taller than Menara.

"Given the evidence we have found on the mechanical constraints caused by the wind, it is unlikely any new tree would be much taller," Yadvinder Malhi, a professor of ecosystem science at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, said in the statement.

Originally published on Live Science.

Laura Geggel

Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.