‘Shocking’ die-off of Africa’s oldest baobabs

Desiree Burns
June 13, 2018

Baobab trees commonly form multiple stems, and though the walls of these stems, or trunks, can hold large amounts of water, numerous stems are hollow. According to Patrut, it was around 2,500 years old - meaning that it sprouted a few years after the assassination of Julius Caesar.

But until recently, much about these trees was not known with confidence, which is why in 2005 the team of researchers began a project to study their structure, growth and age. Over 15 years, Patrut identified about 60 of the largest and oldest baobabs.

For centuries - millennia even - they've towered over the savannah like giants from another world, but their long, nearly immortal watch is at last beginning to fade.

Baobab trees also offer shelter for wildlife.

The baobab is one of the world's largest and longest-living trees and is found naturally in Africa's savanna region. Meanwhile, arguably the most famous baobab, the 1,400-year-old Chapman in Botswana, which bears the carved initials of explorer David Livingstone, saw all its six stems topple at once in January 2016.

"When around 70 percent of your 1,500- to 2,000-year-old trees died within 12 years, it certainly is not normal", Erika Wise, a geographer at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who was not involved in the work, tells The Atlantic.

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".

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It's possible that the deaths are part of a natural cycle, though it's hard to say because baobabs decay rapidly and don't leave behind any evidence of previous die-offs.

The eldest tree - the Panke in Zimbabwe - was found dead in 2010.

Patrut believes the trees are under pressure by rising temperatures and unforgiving droughts.

According to a report in the journal Nature Plants, no one has been able to figure out the reason behind the falling of these big trees, but scientists suspect climate change to be the culprit.

The latest survey of ancient baobabs suggests climate change may already be affecting the continent's vegetation. The common theory, Baum said, is that as the tree slowly grows around these scars, they can become large hollows. "It's a odd feeling, because these are trees which may live for 2,000 years or more, and we see that they're dying one after another during our lifetime". Dry conditions and increasing temperatures might have something to do with the sudden deaths, but the scientists say that more research is needed to know for sure.

Whatever the cause, these mysterious deaths will have a big impact on the southern African landscape, as in addition to shade, the tree's bark, roots, seeds, and fruit are key food sources for many animals.

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