Why are Southern Africa's Baobab Trees Dying Off?

Row of baobab trees in Madagascar

Row of baobab trees in Madagascar

"Something obviously is going on in nearly selectively affecting the largest and oldest", Thomas Lovejoy, an environmental scientist and Amazon rain forest expert at George Mason University, wrote in an email comment on the study.

Of the ten trees listed by the study authors, four died completely, meaning all their multiple stems toppled and died together.

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

Until late past year, the Platland tree in South Africa, also known as Sunland, was their queen. "Statistically, it is practically impossible that such a high number of large old baobabs die in such a short time frame due to natural causes". The baobab puts out new stems in the same way that other trees grow new branches.

The baobab, or Adansonia palmate (Adansonia modeling) is a species of tree in the genus Adansonia the family Malvaceae characteristic of dry savannas of tropical Africa. They do wonder if the deaths might be connected to climate change, but there is no concrete evidence of this.

Study leader Adrian Patrut‚ from 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".

While investigating those complex architectures, the team found these woody structures were rapidly becoming condemned: eight of the 13 oldest baobabs - and five of the six largest - either died since 2005, or had begun internal collapse.

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However the report says researchers have not linked disease or some other similar phenomena to the baobab's decline. The Sunland baobab in South Africa's Limpopo Province, which is so large it houses a cocktail bar, suddenly began splitting apart in 2016 and may not last much longer.

The eldest tree - the Panke in Zimbabwe - was found dead in 2010. "It is hard to come up with a culprit other than climate change". The increased temperature and drought are the major threats, says Patrut. By using radiocarbon dating, it is known that some live over 2,000 years.

Diane Mayne, a baobab ecologist who worked with Patrut in South Africa, called his theory a "fantasy" that lacks "a single reference on wood, anatomy, allometry or biomechanics or the hollowing process - despite recent research in these fields".

"It is very surprising to visit monumental baobabs, with ages greater than 1,000 to 2,000 years, which seem to be in a good state of health, and to find them after several years fallen to the ground and dead", Patrut told National Geographic.

In a new study, published Monday in the journal Nature Plants, scientists argue the deaths are not a matter of coincidence, but proof of a pattern - a pattern they believe is explained by climate change.

Whatever the cause, these mysterious deaths will have a big impact on the southern African landscape.

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