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Climate Change Could Wipe Out Amazing Baobab Trees in Madagascar

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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baobab treesThe Ewe people of Togo, Africa, have a proverb: “Wisdom is like a baobab tree; no one individual can embrace it.” The proverb refers to the massive trees of the genus Adansonia that can live thousands of years, reach 30 meters into the sky and achieve trunk diameters of 10 meters or more. One baobab tree in South Africa is so large that a popular pub has been established inside its trunk. Many local cultures consider baobab trees to be sacred. Others use them for their nutritious fruits, edible leaves and beautiful flowers. In addition, old baobabs, like many long-lived trees, often have natural hollows in their trunks, which in their case can store tens of thousands of gallons of water—an important resource not just for the trees themselves but also for the people who live near them.

But the size and cultural value of baobab trees has not necessarily protected them. According to research published July 5 in Biological Conservation, two of Madagascar’s endemic baobab tree species will lose much of their available habitat in the next 70 years due to climate change and human development. One species may not survive to the next century. Madagascar is home to seven of the world’s eight baobab species, six of which can be found nowhere else.

baobab avenueThe study—by scientists from the French agricultural research center CIRAD and the University of York in England—relied on satellite images and field work to develop population estimates and distribution models for three baobab species: Adansonia grandidieri, A. perrieri and A. suarezensis. All three trees are currently listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List, which has not reassessed any Adansonia species since 1998. The study suggests that two of the species should now be reclassified as critically endangered.

One of those species, A. perrieri, had the lowest current population, according to the study, with just 99 trees observed during ten years of field study. Based on its adaptation to specific geography and weather conditions, the researchers estimate that climate change will shrink the habitat of this species from about 21,000 square kilometers today to just over 6,500 square kilometers in 2080.

The second species, A. suarezensis, had a higher estimated current population of 15,000 trees but a far smaller distribution area of just 1,200 square kilometers. Based on climate change models and the species’s adaptation to high levels of precipitation, the researchers estimated that the distribution of this species will shrink to just 17 square kilometers by 2050 and could face potential extinction by 2080.

The one bright spot in their study was A. grandidieri, the largest and most populous baobab species. The researchers counted an estimated one million trees with a distribution of more than 26,000 square kilometers. According to their climate change models, this isn’t expected to change much by 2050 or 2080, but the team still recommends the species remain classified as endangered.

Slash-and-burn agriculture has destroyed many baobab habitats -- and killed many baobab trees.

Unlike other species that may migrate or slowly move to new habitats as the climate shifts, baobab trees in Madagascar will not have that luxury. As the researchers point out, there’s nowhere left for the baobabs to go. Many baobab trees currently reside in Protected Area Networks (PANs) established to preserve Madagascar’s biodiversity, but the areas outside many PANs have been almost completely converted to agriculture or cattle grazing areas, leaving no room for the trees to expand their distribution. In addition, the large animal species such as elephant birds, which may have eaten baobab fruit and carried the trees’ seeds several kilometers from where they first fell, have all now gone extinct. With this in mind, the researchers assumed a “zero-colonization hypothesis” when calculating the trees’ distributions in coming decades, meaning they have little to no possibility of spreading to new habitats on their own.

Unfortunately, the baobabs may not be alone in this scenario. The researchers warn that baobab trees should be considered a case study and wrote that the existing PAN system in Madagascar “is not likely to be effective for biodiversity conservation in the future” because the PANs will not always contain the ecological features necessary for the survival of the species that live inside them today. They suggest that the PAN system will need to be adapted to reflect climate change models and the ecological features that various species will need in the coming decades, but warn that the rest of Madagascar’s ecology must also be reconsidered. As they wrote, “it is only with an integration of ecological, social and economic studies, involving local communities and stakeholders, that we have a hope of restoring [Madagascar's] ecosystem over the long term.”

Photos: Baobab trees over water by Rita Willaert. The famous Avenue du Baobab by Alessandro Casagrande. Baobab trees heavily damaged by slash-and-burn agriculture by Frank Vassen. All used under Creative Commons license

John R. Platt About the Author: Twice a week, John Platt shines a light on endangered species from all over the globe, exploring not just why they are dying out but also what's being done to rescue them from oblivion. Follow on Twitter @johnrplatt.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Sundance 12:33 pm 07/19/2013

    Shouldn’t we be more concerned with all the humans dying from lack of cheap energy that would make a huge difference in helping them to leap out of poverty? For President Obama and the World Bank to turn their backs on the world’s poorest by denying them the ability to access affordable energy is akin to supporting genocide of the poor. It is an anti-humanist position and I wonder when Scientific America will stand up for the impoverished as much as they stand up for a couple of trees?

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  2. 2. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 1:46 pm 07/19/2013

    It’s all connected. Plenty of journalists write about people. I write about everything else that would otherwise slip through the cracks. As for poverty, there’s financial poverty but also the poverty of culture, where something important from nature and history is lost. That poverty haunts not just individuals but us all.

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  3. 3. Carlyle 6:04 pm 07/19/2013

    Good work once again John. Just as captive populations of endangered animals are kept to protect them against extinction, so should rare or endangered plants be established in other suitable areas. Particularly species that would never become pests.

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  4. 4. Owl905 7:56 pm 07/19/2013

    “Shouldn’t we be more concerned with all the humans dying from lack of cheap energy ” What are you blithering about? There’s no mortality crisis due to the lack of cheap energy. Your comment reads like something from a cryo tube that’s missed the last quarter century of events. Put down your evidence that anyone, especially the World Bank and Obama, have ‘turned their backs’ on a human crisis of any kind. It reads like the rain caused something to ooze up out of the mud.

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  5. 5. Owl905 8:01 pm 07/19/2013

    As usual Carlyle substitutes reading comprehension with a polyanna fictional solution. There’s no recommendation in the article to relocate the threatened species to fictional ‘other suitable areas’. The article points out the trees are already in the appropriate environment – and it’s shrinking. Platt’s thesis is actually the right one, and counter to your mobile 5-and-dime answer – the existing environmental degradation in Madagasgar has to be reversed.

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  6. 6. Carlyle 3:50 am 07/20/2013

    Well why don’t you take your missionary enthusiasm right over there, kick out the subsistence farmers, with force if necessary. While you are at it, teach them how to take care of their families by taking your own & teaching by example. While you are at it, why not demand that all the endangered animals in zoos around the world being raised in special breeding programmes, be returned whence they came? You might be an Owl & you might be old, but wise?

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  7. 7. Postman1 10:44 pm 07/20/2013

    Carlyle +10
    I was wondering how the baobabs might fare in some parts of Oz? I know y’all have enough problems with invasive animal species, but trees might not be that problematic. Just a thought, but I’m curious. Hope you are having a nice winter, mate.

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  8. 8. Dr. Merc 8:23 am 07/21/2013

    Here’s something we’ve seen a lot of over the past few years as the AGW crowd grows more and more desperate to keep themselves in the narrative:

    “Madagascar’s endemic baobab tree species will lose much of their available habitat in the next 70 years due to climate change and human development.”

    In other words, 95% of the destruction could be that “AND human development”, but as long as they get the words “climate change” in there somewhere, mission accomplished.

    And did you notice anything MISSING from the article? They mention “climate change” about ten times, yet not once do they ever mention HOW this “climate change” is going to kill off the noble baobab trees. By rising two degrees? Ten degrees? Twenty? What if the sunspot crowd is correct and it’s going to lower ten degrees? It doesn’t matter. The only object here is to pick something cute (baobab tree, butterflies, baby seal pups, etc) and make them out to be the poor, innocent victims of “climate change” — whatever THAT means.

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  9. 9. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 10:43 am 07/21/2013

    Owl905 & Carlyle — No need to fight, guys, I think you’d both closer in opinion than you think. Always great to see comments from you.

    Postman1 — As always, thanks for you comment. I haven’t seen any studies yet about Australia’s one baobab species. There was a recent, similar, study about the one baobab species in Africa, which will lose some territories for sure, but it’s fairly widespread and will do fairly well.

    Dr. Merc — Always nice to have the climate change deniers pop in to spread their paranoia, anger and fear. Feel free to read the original paper which goes into more detail about how each habitat will be affected.

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  10. 10. Therapsid 3:02 pm 07/21/2013

    Baobab trees survived repeated cycles of glaciation and interglaciation, but suddenly they’re in danger of extinction from climate change?

    Dr. Merc is right – if they become extinct (they won’t because we won’t let them, but let’s suppose anyway), human development will be the proximate cause.

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  11. 11. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 3:38 pm 07/21/2013

    Well as I say quite clearly in the article, human development has limited the trees of these two species to areas which, due to climate change, will no longer have the ecological features they require. It’s a one-two punch — and humans are responsible for both fists.

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  12. 12. Scienceisnotagenda 5:04 pm 07/21/2013

    Good grief. Please keep the ideological agenda out of Scientific American. ‘Climate change’ ad nauseum. I suppose the author needs to appease the gods of the global warming cultists to get noticed.

    This is ALL about human encroachment on habitats. I have tropical plants growing quite fine in my Canadian home. It’s not rocket science to breed plants, especially today with advanced tissue culture.

    Dr merc above…very true. Non scientific sequiturs. The Yankees win the World Series and the chicken stops laying eggs. Exactly what is this climate chane that is endangering these trees. Specifics or is this plucked out of the general Boogie man bag of GW religion? Drink the purple KoolAde.

    Hint to researchers. if their are no elephant birds to distribute a seed,pick one up and carry it up the rad and drop it. I grow a maple tree in my garden…none are endemic my region. If there is nowhere to plant it up the road, that’s not climate change but too many friggin people.

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  13. 13. Scienceisnotagenda 5:07 pm 07/21/2013

    Spelling corrections above


    Nice if there was an edit feature as whole posting hard to reread before posting.

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  14. 14. Owl905 5:45 pm 07/21/2013

    Therapsid wrote: “Baobab trees survived repeated cycles of glaciation and interglaciation, but suddenly they’re in danger of extinction from climate change?” Yes. Trying remove climate change from the combination-punch takes all the extra threat to the PAN’s and claim it doesn’t exist. Try reading the article again for the first time.

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  15. 15. Owl905 5:56 pm 07/21/2013

    “Good grief. Please keep the ideological agenda out of Scientific American.” In anyone is dragging a make-belive ideology into the discussion, it’s you and the pro-pollutionist congregation.
    It is clearly not all about human encroachment (you have to make a special effort not to read it right in the article) – maybe you can get a group discount on remedial reading courses.
    It’s also you and your cliche-ridden smarm that goes off like a clowder of scalded cats every time you have to read about another danger from climate change. It’s the four year-old with hands over the ears yelling shadddaaappp!

    It’s really happening. It’s documented and cataloged. Climate change is on the move and it’s adding stress to plant and animal species around the globe. You and the rest of the pro-pollution priests should wake up and sober up. The dangers to specific baobob species is just another example. You claiming otherwise because you can go a tropical plant indoors is an insult to evolution.

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  16. 16. Scienceisnotagenda 6:14 pm 07/21/2013

    Owl. The science. Please provide the variables linking the disappearance of these trees to climate change. Nitty gritty evidence.

    Hundreds of species have become extinct or extirpated from areas because of human activity….not climate change. This article makes a tenuous connection to climate change ( mentioned in the headline) based on….? Methinks if someone burns down a tree and ploughs the field it isn’t climate change that’s the force at work. What are the variables measured to date that implicate climate change….who knows what .3 of a degree of temperature does? How does an inch more or less of rain a year impact a tree. Please provide the details.

    This is suppose to be science and not global warming flavour of the day.

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  17. 17. Owl905 7:05 pm 07/21/2013

    “The science. Please provide the variables linking the disappearance of these trees to climate change. Nitty gritty evidence.”
    Despite the direct charge and challenge, you avoided reading the article for the first time, again.
    Instead, you treat the world to another round of your banal and pedantic ambiguous church of denial.
    No one owes you more details. You’ve already left a trail of slime with your unwillingness or inability to read what the article provides.

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  18. 18. Scienceisnotagenda 10:50 pm 07/21/2013

    Science isn’t about ‘owing’ or political correctness. It’s about evidence…not assuming that two events are linked without any specifics. The article is N0T science but speculation. One can speculate about whatever. Feel free to speculate about gods, ghosts or leprechauns.

    Is there a link between climate change and the disappearance of some species in this genus? The article presents zero evidence that is scientific.

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  19. 19. Owl905 1:20 am 07/22/2013

    The one that brings zero to the discussion is you and your homeopathetic answers.
    Your response is illogical bile – “No one owes you more details” is just that – doesn’t owe you; it’s not your pouting about what science is or isn’t.
    Your answer again indicates your reading comprehension skills are just as weak as your understanding of climate change science.
    And the article is bullseye for recapping the research paper referenced. PANs are protected zones are supposed to be the arks for protecting species that are fixed in place – like most of the boabob species in Madagasgar.
    You don’t even get the current status right. You’re just a sad excuse for a pro-pollution flake.
    Expecting others to deliver to them is lazy and disgusting. Do some homework instead of demanding that someone else do it for you.

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  20. 20. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 8:32 am 07/22/2013

    “Scieneisnotagenda,” deny all you want. There are a million articles on Scientific American discussing the reality of climate change. Try reading one or two of them.

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  21. 21. Sisko 10:02 am 07/22/2013

    John R. Platt

    There are many articles by Scientific American on the topic of climate change and 95% of them are little more than propaganda and have little to do with science.

    Yes more atmospheric CO2 would warm to planet slightly if all other conditions remained unchanged. (7% of scientists agree with that basic premise)

    We do not yet understand what the ECS is (and probably never will) and we are even unsure about what TCS will be over the next several decades.

    We have no means of accurately knowing what areas of the planet will be harmed or where will benefit from it getting warmer since we do not know what other conditions will change, or how much or how fast as a byproduct of more CO2 emissions.

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  22. 22. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 10:35 am 07/22/2013

    I see, it’s all a grand conspiracy. Scientists are all propaganda machines. Uh-huh.

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  23. 23. Sisko 11:35 am 07/22/2013

    John R. Platt-

    No not all scientists have an agenda that is wider than the science justifies but certainly some do. What actually occurs is that people such as you misrepresent the actual science and try to convience others to adopt behaviors that you believe appropriate. You seem to like to publish articles that have little factual basis in a weal attempt to influence opinions.

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  24. 24. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 1:30 pm 07/22/2013

    Oh, so now you’re accusing me of having an agenda and a bias and of lying in my articles. Sorry, Robert, but I’m an ethical man and I stand by my writing and the facts therein. I’m sorry your narrow perception of the world means that everyone else is telling you what to do.

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  25. 25. Sisko 1:46 pm 07/22/2013

    John Platt

    Not everyone else in the world associates increased CO2 levels to impending disaster for humanity or the planet and most certainly not everyone agrees with the perceptions in your article.

    The fact that you can write an article titled “Climate Change Could Wipe Out Amazing Baobab Trees in Madagascar” and not understand that what you have written is far more propaganda than science is quite telling of your perspective. It is obvious to anyone who actually does science that clamate change is very far down the list of issues which have impacted the decline in the population of the trees in Madagascar.

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  26. 26. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 2:23 pm 07/22/2013

    Read my article. Heck, read the original paper that I cite. The link is in the article. Both detail the reasons for the current decline and the expected future decline. It’s all perfectly clear if you’re not looking through your own tinted lens that declares every mention of the words “climate change” is propaganda.

    And on that note, come on, get off your “propaganda” paranoia and stop repeating the same old “not everyone agrees” nonsense. The science is accepted by all buy a few outliers.

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  27. 27. Sisko 2:44 pm 07/22/2013

    John R Platt

    Oh now you try the appeal to authority argument that the “science is accepted by all but a few outliers”.

    LOL- John that is a wopper.

    What science is accepted by all but a few outliers?

    In fact the science that is accepted is exactly as I wrote. That if all other conditions remained unchanged that an increase in CO2 will result is a slight warming.

    John- There is no scientific agreement on TCS and much less on ECS unless you include such a wide margin of error to include both changes of no consequence and changes of concern. There is also no scientific agreement on what conditions will change and where (or when)as a result of any warming that does occur.

    John– You really should get the facts straight if you are going to write on this topic. There is much to learn and many actions that could be taken that will have no measureable benefit.

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  28. 28. Sisko 2:53 pm 07/22/2013

    BTW John- I did read you article and several of the papers. They are nowhere near as dramatic as your headline are they?

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  29. 29. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 3:04 pm 07/22/2013

    Yeah, yeah, heard it before. Yawn.

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  30. 30. Sisko 3:12 pm 07/22/2013


    Then you should start learning from the experience and write more accurate articles.

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  31. 31. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 3:30 pm 07/22/2013

    Sorry, Charlie, I stand by what I write. Go fish somewhere else.

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  32. 32. Carlyle 6:16 am 07/28/2013

    Sorry I did not get back to you earlier Postman1. I have been travelling & only got to a computer once in the past 8 days. boababs fare very well in Australia. Having a beautiful winter thank you.

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