The mysterious deaths of African ancient trees

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Baobabs are dying across Southern Africa‚ and climate change may be to blame.

"It is a disaster of unprecedented magnitude, ' said Prof Adrian Patrut of Babes-Bolyai University in Romania". They were surprised that most of the oldest and biggest died within those 12 years. "It's statistically very unlikely". Some of these trees are more than 2000 years old.

Baobabs are notoriously tricky to date because their unusual shape and growth patterns can complicate traditional tree-ring analysis - and Patrut's method drew some controversy from other baobab ecologists.

Despite these trees having many stems and trunks of different ages, the stems of many had died suddenly.

Scientists who have been researching the African baobabs reported in Nature Plants that the trees, aged between 1,100 and 2,500 years, some with the width of a small Katutura house, might have fallen victim to climate change in the last 13.

The park added that baobab trees are "difficult to kill".

The baobab is one of the world's largest and longest-living trees and is found naturally in Africa's savanna region. Scientists predict that over the next few decades it will experience some of the continent's most intense increases in temperature and decreases in rainfall.

According to a report in the journal Nature Plants, no one has been able to figure out the reason behind the falling of these huge trees, but scientists suspect climate change to be the culprit.

The Chapman baobab tree in Botswana which collapsed in 2016
Africa's strangest trees are stranger than thought—and they're dying mysteriously

Other factors, including human interference with individual trees (installing a cocktail bar, for example), could also be responsible.

Baobabs have a characteristic trunk with a massive girth and only branch at a particular height from the ground. They are often the site of shrines and meeting places, and support self-contained ecosystems of mammals, birds, reptiles and insects. The baobab “is famous because it is the biggest angiosperm, and it is the most iconic tree of Africa, ” Patrut said. The fruits are said to contain more vitamin C than oranges and kiwis.

Patrut said the dead trunks were only 40% water‚ instead of the 75% to 80% they should have been. And baobab specialist Sarah Venter of the University of Witwatersrand says if drought was the problem, it would affect all baobabs, not just the largest and oldest.

But baobab dating is a tricky, controversial process.

The oldest tree which suffered the collapse of all its stems was the Panke tree in Zimbabwe‚ estimated to have existed for 2 500 years.

The problem is the tree's so-called "architecture". Because of these pressures, from a young age baobabs become pockmarked with "scars". They have been surveying the trees since 2005 and have developed a theory of how they grow, while also documenting the losses. This can throw off the tree's rings with new wood growth and make it hard to determine the oldest part of the tree.

The African baobab trees are dying, or perhaps dead already, a new research reveals.

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