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‘Shocking’ die-off of Africa’s oldest baobabs
13 June 2018, 10:14 | Melissa Porter
Africa's strangest trees are stranger than thought—and they're dying mysteriously
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.
To investigate how baobabs - aka the 'tree of life', owing to its ability to retain water - can grow to such impressive sizes, Patrut and his team began researching them in 2005, analysing over 60 of the largest and potentially oldest specimens in Africa.
The dead and dying trees were found in Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa, Botswana and Zambia. It had lived for an estimated 1,110 years until its largest stem unit split four times in 2016 and 2017 and all five stems fell and died.
Dr Patrut, of Babes-Bolyai University in Romania, told the BBC: "We suspect this is associated with increased temperature and drought".
Southern Africa, where the researchers cataloged the trees, has already been heating up faster than the global average, and researchers with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) say the region will see some of the most intense temperatures hikes and reduced rainfall on the continent. "Various baobabs have been used as a shop, a prison, a house, a storage barn and a bus shelter". With wide, cylindrical trunks and gnarled branches, the trees appear to have been yanked out of the ground, flipped over and shoved back in, roots in the air. Baum says that many baobab specialists are dubious of Patrut's tree dating method, which could underestimate the age of a tree by up to 1,000 years. "However, further research is necessary to support or refute this".
Scientists are wondering what's behind the mysterious die-off - and are looking at climate change as a likely culprit. The baobab "is famous because it is the biggest angiosperm, and it is the most iconic tree of Africa", Patrut said.
None of the trees showed obvious signs of infection, the researchers found, and the pattern of deaths did not fit what would be expected had the die-off been caused by a contagious disease.
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