Africa’s iconic baobob trees sud­denly dy­ing

USA TODAY International Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Doyle Rice

Baobab trees – an icon of Africa and the heart of many tra­di­tional African reme­dies and folk­lore – are dy­ing across the con­ti­nent, and sci­en­tists are try­ing to un­der­stand why.

A study pub­lished Mon­day found eight of the 13 old­est trees in Africa have died over the past decade, and the au­thors sug­gest cli­mate change might af­fect the abil­ity of the baobab to sur­vive.

“The deaths of the ma­jor­ity of the old­est and largest African baob­abs

over the past 12 years is an event of an un­prece­dented mag­ni­tude,” the au­thors said. “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.”

Baob­abs – also known as “dead-rat” trees af­ter the shape of their fruit – are among the most dis­tinc­tive plants in the world, fea­tur­ing stout, mas­sive, branch­less trunks that can look like pil­lars.

The study’s lead au­thor, Adrian Pa­trut, a chemist at Ro­ma­nia’s Babes-Bolyai Univer­sity, told NPR that “such a dis­as­trous de­cline is very un­ex­pected. It’s a strange feel­ing be­cause these are trees

which may live for 2,000 years or more, and we see that they’re dy­ing one af­ter an­other dur­ing our life­time. It’s sta­tis­ti­cally very un­likely.”

Us­ing ra­dio­car­bon dat­ing, the re­searchers an­a­lyzed more than 60 of the largest and po­ten­tially old­est baobab trees in Africa from 2005 to 2017. They were sur­prised that most of the old­est and big­gest died within those 12 years.

Man-made cli­mate change is a likely sus­pect, sci­en­tists said. In­creased tem­per­a­ture and drought are the pri­mary threats, Pa­trut told BBC News.

The study was pub­lished in the peer­re­viewed Bri­tish jour­nal Na­ture Plants.

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