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The mysterious origin of the “tree of life” revealed while certain species are a few decades from extinction

The “grotesque” baobab has long been known as the “tree of life” for its ability to create and maintain its own ecosystem in arid regions. Since the days of the ancient Egyptians, people have marveled at what researchers consider one of the “most charismatic species on our planet,” but no one knew where they came from – until now .

There are currently eight species of tall, broad-trunked plants, also known as upside-down trees or “mother of the forest.” Of these groups, six species are found in Madagascar, one throughout mainland Africa, and another only in northwest Australia.

But only one of these places is the true origin of all.

Researchers claim to have solved the mystery of the ‘spectacular trees’ using the species’ DNA. In a new study published in Nature, they said all the trees came from the African island nation of Madagascar.

Avenue of the Baobabs in Madagascar.

Giovanni Mereghetti/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)/Madagascar, Avenue des Baobabs. (Photo by: Giovanni Mereghetti/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Baobabs “have captivated botanists, tourists, naturalists and passers-by for centuries,” the study says. “The first accounts of humans marveling at these amazing trees probably date back to the ancient Egyptians, around 2,300 BC. With their grotesque appearance, enormous size, reputed longevity and diverse uses, baobabs have become one of the world’s most the most charismatic people on our planet.

It was difficult to pin down this charisma. But researchers say that after picking the species’ leaves and analyzing the genomes, they were able to determine that their common ancestor was based in Madagascar. Over time, members of the species dispersed off the island, creating hybrid species that would evolve to have different flowers attracting various other animals.

“We were delighted to participate in this project which uncovered the speciation patterns of baobabs in Madagascar, followed by the astonishing long-distance dispersal of two species, one to Africa and the other to Australia,” said Andrew Leitch, a professor at Queen Mary University of London. “This was accompanied by the evolution of some fascinating pollination syndromes involving hawk moths, lemurs and bats.”

Baobab fruit or Adansonia digitata on plate, pulp and powder, superfood on Zanzibar island, Tanzania, East Africa.

oleg_doroshenko / Getty Images

According to the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, baobabs are unlike any other.

“A thick, bottle-like trunk rises to support spindly branches. Baobabs are deciduous, and during the dry season (which can last up to nine months), a baobab’s bare branches look like to a gnarled root system and make these trees look as if they are being pulled out by the roots and grown upside down,” the organization explains.

The alliance says trees not only play a key role in their ecosystems, but also create their own. In addition to helping soil stay moist, recycle nutrients, and prevent erosion, they also provide food, water, and shelter for other species.

The smallest of the baobab species grows to 16 feet, while the largest of the trees can reach around 82 feet tall, with a girth that measures the same or more. For comparison, a semi-trailer is typically around 72 feet long.

But many of these trees face a conservation battle. All but one species is on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, with three considered endangered, one considered critically endangered and another considered endangered, according to the study. Only one species is classified as “least concern”, although its populations are declining.

The DNA results show that some trees have low genetic diversity, a key component of species survival because it helps build resilience to environmental changes. Their results also suggest that climate change will “pose serious threats” to one of the species present in Madagascar and could force it to become extinct before 2080. Based on this, the researchers say their results should warrant a reassessment of conservation. status of baobabs.

The San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance has also noted a “rapid increase” in tree mortality in southern Africa.

“Of the 13 largest baobab trees on the continent, 9 collapsed and died,” the group said. “The cause is unclear, but scientists suspect that global climate change may play a role in the disappearance of these trees.”

News Source : www.cbsnews.com
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