Why Borneo’s trees are the loftiest on Earth

Nature
A tall tree seen from the bottom of its trunk, looking up into the canopy. A person climbs the tree on ropes.

A researcher scales the 100.8-metre tree named Menara in northern Borneo. The rarity of strong winds in the region has helped its rainforest to reach great heights. Credit: A. Shenkin et al./Front. For. Glob. Change (CC BY 4.0)

Ecology

Scientists find that strong winds constrain tropical forest height, but island’s gentle breezes allow trees to stretch tall.

Relatively gentle winds on Borneo could explain why the island hosts the world’s tallest tropical forest — including the tallest known tree in the tropics, the 100-metre giant named Menara.

Last year, an international team described Menara, a yellow meranti (Shorea faguetiana) growing in a research plot in Malaysian Borneo. Now, a team composed of many of the same scientists and led by Tobias Jackson at the University of Oxford, UK, has used laser scanning to create a 3D model of several dozen trees in the plot and to measure their heights.

The researchers also placed strain gauges on the trees’ trunks to assess how much they bend in the wind, and modelled how much stress they could sustain. The results suggest that in tropical forests, the strongest winds put a limit on tree growth.

Large conifers in temperate forests, such as California’s coastal redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens), can grow even taller than Menara, but they are probably limited by factors other than wind speeds, because they have much thicker trunks, Jackson says.

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