Epically Tough Baobab Trees Dying Off in Africa


Nine of the 13 oldest and five of the six largest baobab trees researchers examined over the past 12 years have died. Rod Waddington/Used Under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0

To all the almost undeniable evidence that climate change is real and inflicting massive damage on our planet, we now add another damning bit of substantiation: the sudden death of several majestic, ancient African baobab trees.

The baobab, with its massive, often hollowed-out trunk, shiny fibrous bark and high gnarly branches that resemble roots, is scattered throughout the African savannah. It's an odd-looking tree; one legend has it that a god threw it out of paradise and it landed upside down on Earth, where it continued to grow.

It's a tree that can live, by conservative estimates, to 2,000 years old. But a June 2018 study in the journal Nature Plants reveals some alarming news about Adansonia digitata. Nine of the 13 oldest baobabs and five of the six largest trees that researchers examined over the past 12 years have died.

The reasons for the sudden die-off are, as yet, unclear. But climate change-induced drought is the top suspect. From the study:

The deaths of the majority of the oldest and largest African baobabs over the past 12 years is an event of an unprecedented magnitude. 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. 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.

It is strange and unprecedented that so many trees that live for so long would succumb at the same time. The study's authors point out that more research is needed to find a definitive cause. "But when around 70 percent of your 1,500 to 2,000-year-old trees died within 12 years, it certainly is not normal," Erika Wise, the head of the Climate & Tree Ring Environmental Science research group at the University of North Carolina, told the Atlantic. "It is difficult to come up with a culprit other than climate change."

The baobab, it should be pointed out, is not easy to kill, either. It's, in fact, legendary for its ability to withstand fire and the stripping of its bark. "The thick, fibrous bark is remarkably fire resistant, and even if the interior is completely burnt out, the tree continues to live," according to the Agroforestry Database. "Regrowth after fire results in a thickened, uneven integument that gives the tree its gnarled appearance resembling an elephant's skin but that serves as added protection against fire."

The trees grow so big that their hollowed interiors often are used for shelter, water storage and local gatherings. Yet between 2005 and 2017, as researchers began to measure and record dozens of the biggest baobabs, the sturdy trees started dying off. The largest, the Platland tree (also known as the Sunland baobab) of Limpopo province, South Africa, was about 62 feet (18.9 meters) high and an astonishing 111 feet (34.11 meters) around. In 2016 and '17, it split four times, and its five stems crumpled to the ground and died.

When another big baobab collapsed in 2016, the researchers found that it contained just 49 percent water, compared to 79 percent for a healthy baobab, according to The New York Times.

"The new paper nicely brings together information showing that the death of the millennial baobabs is likely due to an unprecedented combination of temperature increase and drought," Jens Gebauer, a horticulturist at the Rhine-Waal University of Applied Sciences, told the Times.


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