“Dramatic” disappearance of the oldest baobabs in Africa

The vast majority of the oldest baobabs in Africa have been dying for the last ten years, alerting researchers on Monday that climate change is a possible cause of this “unprecedented scale” disappearance.

“It is shocking and spectacular to witness during the course of our lives the disappearance of so many millennia old trees,” says Adrian Patrut of Babes-Bolyai University in Romania, co-author of the study. published in the journal Nature Plants .

“During the second half of the 19th century, the great baobabs of southern Africa began to die. But for 10 to 15 years, their disappearance has rapidly increased because of the very high temperatures and the drought,” continues the researcher.

Aged from 1100 to 2500 years old and tutelage of the sky, the baobabs and their massive trunk crowned with roots-like branches are one of the most emblematic silhouettes of arid savannas, spotted for miles around.

However, in the last 12 years, 9 of the 13 oldest baobabs are partially or totally dead, according to the study.

Among the victims, three symbolic monsters: Panke, from Zimbabwe, the oldest baobab with 2450 years, the Platland tree of South Africa, one of the largest in the world, with a trunk of more than 10 meters in diameter and the famous Chapman baobab of Botswana, a national monument and on which Livingstone engraved his initials.

The researchers discovered this “unprecedented scale” situation almost by chance: they studied these trees to unlock the secret of their incredible measurements.

For this, between 2005 and 2017, Adrian Patrut and his colleagues studied all the largest (and therefore usually the oldest) baobabs in Africa, more than 60 in all.

Traveling through Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique, Botswana and Zambia, they collected samples from different parts of the trees. Fragments of which they then defined the age using carbon dating.

“The cavity of an old Zimbabwe baobab tree is so big that almost 40 people can hide there,” says the website of Kruger National Park in South Africa. They could be used as a store, as a prison or simply as a bus stop.

They have also long been used to find their way through explorers or travelers.

“Baobabs periodically produce new trunks, as other species produce branches,” according to the study. These stems or trunks, often of different ages, then merge.

When too many stems die, the tree collapses. “Before we started our research, we had been informed of the collapse of the baobab grootboom in Namibia, but we thought it was an isolated event,” says Adrian Patrut.

“These deaths were not caused by an epidemic,” say the authors. They suggest that climate change may affect the baobab’s ability to survive in its habitat even though “further research will be needed to support or refute this hypothesis”.

But “the region in which the millennia baobabs are dead is one of those where the warming is the fastest in Africa,” notes Adrian Patrut.

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