Behold the world’s tallest trees

A photographer-and-ecologist team are on a mission to document the mightiest members of forests.

It takes centuries of slow growth for the world’s tallest trees to reach heights far beyond the tops of their surrounding forests. As they stretch for the sky, the giants nurture ever-changing ecosystems of plants and animals. Since 2015, Steven Pearce and Jennifer Sanger, a Tasmanian ­photographer-and-­ecologist duo, have been documenting Earth’s unique and underappreciated behemoths. The pair use rock climbing gear to ascend hundreds of feet from the trees’ roots to their wind-punished crowns. With the help of a homemade dual-camera rig attached to a pulley system, Pearce shoots dozens of photos over several weeks at each site and combines them into massive gigapixel panoramas. The resulting images capture the long-standing beauties before human ­interference can diminish or destroy them.

person climbing and studying a tree
Sanger investigates spores on a fern that resides halfway up the Oregon spruce’s trunk, where light breaks through the canopy. Nearer the bottom, the darkness and damp help vines and other plants like the salmon­berry flourish. In the tree’s most exposed upper regions, lichens and moss thrive in the brutal wind and sunlight; those organisms hold moisture from the air around their roots far from the forest floor. Steven Pearce
large forest tree
A Sitka spruce, located just a mile from the Pacific coast in Oregon’s Siuslaw ­National Forest, looms above its neighbors, exposing the top half of its nearly 259-foot trunk to salty sea breezes that turn its branches dry and brittle. Closer inspection reveals a scar in the bark near the tiny climber in yellow. The mark measures more than six feet long and two feet wide, likely caused by damage from a coastal storm years in the past. Steven Pearce
large forest tree
This 275-foot Tasmanian Eucalyptus regnans—named Gandalf’s Staff—was one of Pearce’s first tree shoots. The 500-year-old wonder is still at risk for logging: It falls just shy of the country’s legal protections for old growth, which kick in at 278.8 feet. It took Pearce two months of camping to get four days without heavy winds that would disrupt the camera’s sensitive pulley system. His lenses repeatedly fogged, as the cold metal and glass caused condensation as they rose through multiple ­climate zones. Steven Pearce
person in hammock attached to large forest tree
The beauty of these trees isn’t limited to the plants they nurture: They also provide homes for mini animal kingdoms. Here, Pearce documents an ornithologist observing Tasmanian birds such as olive whistlers and strong-­billed honeyeaters. Smaller species like the endangered honey parrot occupy dense foliage closer to the ground, while larger varieties like the ­yellow-tailed black cockatoo stretch out in the sparse upper branches. Steven Pearce
large forest tree
Dozens of tall coni­fer species line the peaks of Taiwan. This famous trio of T. cryptomerioides in the northeastern part of the country reaches roughly 229 feet. But the best part about capturing the “Three Sisters” may have been the local fauna, says Pearce. A fluffy red panda regularly visited over the three weeks he camped out at the famed cluster. These endangered animals eat and nest among the leaves, but loss of habitat to logging has caused populations to drop by up to 40 percent in three generations. Steven Pearce

This story appears in the Winter 2020, Transform issue of Popular Science.

Sara Kiley Watson

Sara Kiley WatsonSara Kiley Watson is an assistant editor at PopSci. Her work has also been featured in NPR and Business Insider. Contact the author here.