ibusinesslines.com August 19, 2018

‘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

The iconic tree can live to be 3,000 years old and
one in Zimbabwe is so large that up to 40 people can shelter inside its trunk

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.

A lot of scientists are increasingly getting concerned over the health of African baobab trees in Africa.

When a tree is damaged to form a hollow, bark can grow into the cavity and eventually start making new wood to fill in the hole.

The goal of the study was to learn how the trees become so enormous.

"When they do die, they simply rot from the inside and suddenly collapse, leaving a heap of fibres".

"(They do refer to other baobab mortality but don't have real data on it)", Lovejoy continued. Some of these trees are more than 2000 years old.

Other than the oldest and biggest, the research team observed that many other mature baobabs had died.

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