Scientists shocked by mysterious deaths of ancient trees

Row of baobab trees in Madagascar

The baobab is the biggest and longest-living flowering tree‚ and has branches resembling roots reaching for the sky.

"We felt as if we were the ones outliving the baobabs, instead of them outliving many generations of humans".

Some of the oldest and largest baobabs in SA, Zimbabwe‚ Namibia‚ Botswana and Zambia have died abruptly in the past decade‚ says a team of global researchers.

Collating data on girth, height, wood volume, and age, they noted the "unexpected and intriguing fact" that most of the very oldest and biggest trees died during the study period.

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.

Over the last 12 years, the continent has lost several of its oldest and largest specimens of the African baobab, the most common species in the baobab genus, which is characterized by the trees' short stature, thick trunks and impressive longevity.

"However, further research is necessary to support or refute this supposition". In the past, they have been used as a prison, a barn and a bus shelter, according to the website of Kruger National Park in South Africa.

While the science of baobab biology is not yet settled - with at least one ecologist calling out Patrut's multi-stem hypothesis as a "fantasy" - nobody disagrees that it's heartbreaking to see these great, old lives pass into memory like this. Now, researchers report things get even weirder as the tree grows older.

Baobab trees commonly form multiple stems, and though the walls of these stems, or trunks, can hold large amounts of water, numerous stems are hollow. Baobabs have broad trunks, or multiple stems coming out of the ground. The scientists considered baobabs a good challenge because others had said wood was hard to determine the age of.

"They can be burnt, or stripped of their bark, and they will just form new bark and carry on growing", it states. Four of the trees they studied died completely‚ meaning all their stems toppled together.

The others saw the death of one or several parts. But in 2016, its stems began to crack and collapse, one by one.

The biggest, dubbed Holboom, was from Namibia.

The most famous victim of the die-off was the Chapman's baobab‚ a national monument and tourist attraction in central Botswana that bore the carved initials of explorer David Livingstone. It was named after South African hunter James Chapman‚ who visited it in 1852.

Elsie Cruywagen, a researcher at the Agricultural Research Council in Pretoria, says that there have been many reports over the decades of baobabs dying in times of drought.

The deaths were not caused by an epidemic, they wrote, with Patrut adding: "there were no signs of disease".

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