Some of Africa's oldest and biggest baobob trees have died

Pearl Mccarthy
June 13, 2018

The African baobab, the largest and longest-living tree among all angiosperm (flowering) plants, is in the midst of a deadly crisis, with new research finding several of these ancient trees have recently died or are in the process of internal collapse.

"We report that nine of the 13 oldest and five of the six largest individuals have died, or at least their oldest parts/stems have collapsed and died over the past 12 years", wrote the global team of researchers. But during their study period, the researchers discovered that the oldest and largest had died.

Despite typical lifespans of hundreds or even thousands of years, Africa's baobab trees are dying off rapidly, according to a new study by ecologists.

The study's lead author, Adrian Patrut, a chemist at Romania's Babeș-Bolyai University, told NPR that "such a disastrous decline is very unexpected".

According to a report in the journal Nature Plants, no one has been able to figure out the reason behind the falling of these huge trees, but scientists suspect climate change to be the culprit. Marked by wide, cylindrical trunks and gnarled branches, they look somewhat like trees that have been turned upside-down, with the labyrinthine roots sticking up above and the branches shoved underground. Since the study began, nine of the 13 oldest have died or partially perished. Baobobs grow in unusual ways, often with hollows, making it hard to gauge precise ages, but the research team says the trees in the survey range in age from 1,000 to 2,500 years, reports NPR.

Boababs trees
Boababs treesSAM PANTHAKY AFP Getty Images

"However, further research is necessary to support or refute this supposition". They do wonder if the deaths might be connected to climate change, but there is no concrete evidence of this. It stores huge quantities of water and grows fruit edible for both humans and animals.

“This a unique characteristic of the African baobab and all the baobab trees, ” said Patrut, who has dated different parts of the trees using radiocarbon dating methods. Its leaves are boiled and eaten‚ while its bark is pounded and woven into rope‚ baskets‚ cloth and waterproof hats.

The goal of the study was to learn how the trees get so enormous. "When they do die, they simply rot from the inside and suddenly collapse, leaving a heap of fibers". Then, two years ago, the tree began to split apart, and eventually, it completely fell to pieces. Often seen towering over other plants around, baobabs are somewhat of a tourist attraction in the region. All the dead trees were located in the south of the continent - Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa, Botswana, and Zambia.

"These deaths were not caused by an epidemic and there has also been a rapid increase in the apparently natural deaths of many other mature baobabs‚" the researchers said.

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