Southern Africa’s ancient baobabs are dying

The iconic tree can live to be 3,000 years old and
one in Zimbabwe is so large that up to 40 people can shelter inside its trunk

According to a paper published in the Nature Plants journal, the researchers had investigated and dated "practically all known very large and potentially old" baobabs between 2005 and 2017, only to then unexpectedly note that nearly all of the very oldest and largest trees had died during that period.

But that tree, the more than 1,000-year-old Sunland baobab, apparently the biggest of these trees in Africa, “toppled over” last year.

How these trees - found in Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa, Botswana and Zambia, some almost 2,500 years old - have suddenly died off seemed to be a mystery, but now the research team believes their demise is a visible sign of climate change.

They made the discovery by chance during a study of the biology that enables the baobab to grow so large.

WIKIMEDIA, FERDINAND REUSAfrica's baobab trees, the largest and longest-living flowering plants in the world, are dying at a startling rate, according to a study published yesterday (June 11) in Nature Plants.

Study leader Adrian Patrut‚ of Babes-Bolyai University in Romania‚ said: "It is definitely shocking and dramatic to experience during our lifetime the demise of so many trees with millennial ages". In the past, they have been used as a prison, a barn and a bus shelter, according to the website of Kruger National Park in South Africa. "However, further research is necessary to support or refute this supposition", the authors wrote. By using radiocarbon dating, it is known that some live over 2,000 years.

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Known for its visually-striking shape, the baobab resembles an upside-down plant, with its branches looking like tangled roots reaching towards the sky.

The authors note in their paper that more evidence is needed to determine whether climate change is indeed the cause of the die-offs. It stores huge quantities of water and grows fruit edible for both humans and animals.

The objective of the study was to learn how the trees get so enormous.

"They can be burnt, or stripped of their bark, and they will just form new bark and carry on growing", it states. "When they do die, they simply rot from the inside and suddenly collapse, leaving a heap of fibers".

“(They do refer to other baobab mortality but dont have real data on it),” Lovejoy continued. The tree started to split in 2016 and collapsed completely the following year.

"Pretty much every baobab tree in Southern Africa is covered in the healed scars of past elephant attacks, which speaks to the trees' awesome fix ability", said David Baum, a University of Wisconsin botanist who is familiar with the new study and contributed to a recent Biodiversity International publication cataloguing the trees' attributes, in an email. However, the new study concludes that the deaths "were not caused by an epidemic".

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