Four of the dead were the largest baobab trees in existence, a team from the U.S., Romania and South Africa said. In South Africa, one legendary baobob more than 1,000 years old grew to 111 feet and had a hollow so large that it functioned as a pub for two decades.
Pretty much every baobab tree in Southern Africa is covered in the healed scars of past elephant attacks, which speaks to the trees awesome 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. But during their study period, the researchers discovered that the oldest and largest had died.
That's a tragic loss, considering the history and culture attached to these trees - which are also a key food source for people. The team leader is a nuclear chemist who loved giant trees and had developed a way to date ancient trunks without harming them. While baobabs typically begin growing as single-stemmed trees, they produce new ones over time, developing increasingly complex structures.
Baobabs, also referred to as the dead-rat trees because of the fruits which grows on them, are known to the most different plant species in the world.
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Study leader Adrian Patrut‚ of Babes-Bolyai University in Romania‚ said: "It is definitely shocking and dramatic to experience during our lifetime the demise of so many trees with millennial ages". By using radiocarbon dating, it is known that some live over 2,000 years. And now seven more of the 13 oldest trees, and five of the six biggest trees, have also died, the researchers report.
While the reasons behind the trees' sudden and apparently concurrent difficulties remains unclear, the researchers said they suspect the demise "may be associated at least in part with significant modifications of climate conditions that affect southern Africa in particular". Often seen towering over other plants around, baobabs are somewhat of a tourist attraction in the region. The tree started to split in 2016 and collapsed completely the following year.
The oldest tree by far, of which all the stems collapsed in 2010/11, was the Panke tree in Zimbabwe, estimated to have existed for 2,500 years. Increased temperature and drought are the primary threats, Patrut told BBC News. Dry conditions and increasing temperatures might have something to do with the sudden deaths, but the scientists say that more research is needed to know for sure.
A lot of scientists are increasingly getting concerned over the health of African baobab trees in Africa.
But Baum does not contest that large baobabs are dying - something he calls heartbreaking..