Scientists shocked by mysterious deaths of ancient trees

Henrietta Strickland
June 12, 2018

They are all between 1,000 and more than 2,500 years old.

Trees usually have their age counted by tree-ring dating (dendrochronology), but Patrut says the unusual biology of baobabs prevents this.

"We suspect that the demise of monumental baobabs may be associated at least in part with significant modifications of climate conditions that affect southern Africa in particular".

A team of researchers led by scientists from Babes-Bolyai University in Romania has been regularly visiting Africa's oldest baobab specimens, measuring their dimensions and observing their health, one by one, since 2005. "However, further research is necessary to support or refute this supposition", the authors wrote. The region is home to the oldest and largest African baobabs.

Researchers taking a survey of some of the world's oldest and funkiest trees have bad news to report: Africa's legendary baobobs are dying. After studying data on girth‚ height‚ wood volume and age‚ they noted the "unexpected and intriguing fact" that most of the oldest and biggest trees died during the study period.

It is a strange-looking plant, with branches resembling gnarled roots reaching for the sky, giving it an upside-down look.

A tree regarded as the icon of the African savannah is dying in mysterious circumstances.

The tree serves as a massive store of water, and bears fruit that feeds animals and humans.

While the science of baobab biology is not yet settled - with at least one ecologist calling out Patrut's multi-stem hypothesis as a "fantasy" - nobody disagrees that it's heartbreaking to see these great, old lives pass into memory like this. Its leaves are boiled and eaten‚ while its bark is pounded and woven into rope‚ baskets‚ cloth and waterproof hats.

They found that the trunk of the baobab grows from not one but multiple core stems. The scientists considered baobabs a good challenge because others had said wood was hard to determine the age of. In some cases all the stems died suddenly.

The others saw the death of one or several parts. Then, two years ago, the tree began to split apart, and eventually, it completely fell to pieces.

The biggest, dubbed Holboom, was from Namibia. It stood 30.2m tall and had a girth of 35.1m.

Arguably the most famous baobab, called Chapman, was a declared a national monument in central Botswana, bearing the carved initials of explorer David Livingstone.

Elsie Cruywagen, a researcher at the Agricultural Research Council in Pretoria, says that there have been many reports over the decades of baobabs dying in times of drought.

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.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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