Africa's iconic baobab trees are dying at an alarming rate

Two yellow baobab pods hanging from a leafy branch

Of those nine, four were believed to be the largest African baobab trees in existence. These giant plants are the largest and longest-living angiosperm (flowering) trees today, with some individuals surviving for close to 2,000 years.

"Pretty much every baobab tree in Southern Africa is covered in the healed scars of past elephant attacks, which speaks to the trees' incredible fix ability", said David Baum, a University of Wisconsin botanist who is familiar with the new study and contributed to a recent Biodiversity International publication cataloguing the trees' attributes, in an email. Tropical trees in the Costa Rican cloud forest also seem to be dying from rising temperatures.

"It's a unusual 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".

Also known as "dead-rat" trees, after the shape of their fruit, baobab trees have stout, branchless trunks.

The baobab is "often referred to as the "tree of life" for its ability to produce nutrient-rich fruit even during Africa's harsh dry season", says CNN, and its longevity is legendary.

Temperatures have been rising in Africa over the last several decades, and many climate models suggest the continent is the most vulnerable to climate change.

Researchers found that nine of the oldest 13 baobab trees and five of the six biggest ones have partially or completely perished in the past 12 years.

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

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The new research, by Adrian Patrut of Babes-Bolyai University in Romania and an worldwide group of colleagues, finds that in the past 12 years, "9 of the 13 oldest and 5 of the 6 largest individuals have died, or at least their oldest parts/stems have collapsed and died".

This represents a "shocking and dramatic" decline, says the study's co-author, Adrian Patrut of the Babeș-Bolyai University in Romania. In 2010, its branches started to fall off; then its multiple stems began to split and topple over.

The iconic trees can reach almost 2,000 years of age.

Is Climate Change To Blame?

The researchers don't know for sure, but they describe the spate of high-profile deaths - the end of trees so grand they each had their own names - is an event of "unprecedented magnitude" that likely points to climate change. Authors stressed that more research is needed to confirm that. The common theory, Baum said, is that as the tree slowly grows around these scars, they can become large hollows.

The southern African countries where the trees died are warming faster than the global average.

Patrut said the dead trunks were only 40% water‚ instead of the 75% to 80% they should have been.

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