Climate change could be killing baobabs

Grant Boone
June 13, 2018

Four of the largest African baobabs were among the nine trees identified by researchers.

Patrut and his team first noticed the die-off of the trees during a 2005 research study focused on gauging their ages and studying their architectures.

According to the Kruger National Park in South Africa, the baobabs can live to be 3,000 years old and can grow to be so large that up to 40 people can shelter inside its hollow trunk.

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.

Old trees eventually die. But on a baobab, new wood grows both on the outside and into the hollows, meaning that a straight line from the center of the tree can pass both forward and backward in time - or even skip decades altogether if they rotted out or were eaten.

The trees that have died or are dying are found in Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa, Botswana and Zambia.

Man-made climate change is a likely suspect, scientists said.

"We report that nine of the 13 oldest ... individuals have died, or at least their oldest parts/stems have collapsed and died, over the past 12 years", the scientists wrote in the journal Nature Plants about this "event of an unprecedented magnitude".

Some of the oldest and largest baobabs in SA, Zimbabwe‚ Namibia‚ Botswana and Zambia have died abruptly in the past decade‚ says a team of worldwide researchers.

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Some of the largest are more than 20m wide - one specimen in South Africa known as the Platland housed a bar until it began to rot and split apart in 2016.

Adrian Patrut, the lead author of the study and a chemist at Babes-Bolyai University of Romania says that the shocking demise of such a high number of tress is very unexpected.

"(They do refer to other baobab mortality but don't have real data on it)", Lovejoy continued.

The oldest tree by far, of which all the stems collapsed in 2010/11, is the Panke tree in Zimbabwe, estimated to have existed for 2,500 years. "It is hard to come up with a culprit other than climate change". Increased temperature and drought are the primary threats, Patrut told BBC News.

"We felt as if we were the ones outliving the baobabs, instead of them outliving many generations of humans".

“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.

But Baum does not contest that large baobabs are dying - something he calls “heartbreaking.”.

While the reasons behind the trees' sudden and apparently concurrent difficulties remains unclear, the researchers said they suspect the demise "may be associated at least in part with significant modifications of climate conditions that affect southern Africa in particular".

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