Published: Wed, June 13, 2018
Medical | By Marta Holmes

Africa's oldest baobab trees are dying

Africa's oldest baobab trees are dying

In South Africa's Limpopo province, a baobab tree once grew so large and stood so strong that its human neighbours chose to do the obvious: They built a pub insidethe living tree's thousand-year-old hollow trunk, which measured more than 45 metres around and enclosed two interconnected cavities.

The new research, by Adrian Patrut of Babes-Bolyai University in Romania and an global group of colleagues, finds that in the past 12 years, “9 of the 13 oldest and 5 of the 6 largest individuals have died, or at least their oldest parts/stems have collapsed and died.”. But during their study period, the researchers discovered that the oldest and largest had died. Again, it's hard to determine exactly what caused their demise, but the researchers strongly suspect the deaths are associated at least partly "with significant modifications of climate conditions that affect southern Africa in particular". At various times, these trees have been used as a shop, a prison, a house, a storage barn and a bus shelter.

Occurring throughout the past decade, the trees' demise could be the result of climate change, the researchers say, but further study is needed to confirm their hypothesis.

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.

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When they've lost their leaves, the trees appear to be upside-down, with their branches resembling roots that extend upward.

The oldest tree to suffer the collapse of all its stems was the Panke tree in Zimbabwe‚ estimated to have existed for 2‚500 years. An exact cause isn't known but an increasing number of scientists suspect climate change. Their trunks are able to store massive volumes of water even in dry landscapes - on which animals and humans have relied - which is perhaps why the baobab is called the "tree of life".

"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.

The objective of the study was to learn how the trees become so enormous. In some cases all the stems died suddenly. In 2010, its branches started to fall off; then its multiple stems began to split and topple over.

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“(They do refer to other baobab mortality but dont have real data on it),” Lovejoy continued.

"It is very surprising to visit monumental baobabs, with ages greater than a thousand to two thousand years, which seem to be in a good state of health, and to find them after several years fallen to the ground and dead", Adrian Patrut, a researcher at Babes-Bolyai University, told National Geographic.

"These deaths were not caused by an epidemic and there has also been a rapid increase in the apparently natural deaths of many other mature baobabs‚" the researchers say.

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