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China Daily: Baobab Trees' Evolutionary Challenges Discovered


Chinese and African researchers have recently uncovered evolutionary insights about baobabs, suggesting a need to revise the conservation status of these iconic trees.

Baobabs, known for their distinctive swollen trunks, consist of eight species found in various regions of Madagascar, Africa and Australia, and hold the title of the “tree of life” due to their cultural significance and various uses in traditional medicine and local cuisine. However, not much is known about their evolutionary history.

Recent genomic and ecological analyses by the scientists from including the Sino-Africa Joint Research Center and Wuhan Botanical Garden of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Hubei province have found that Madagascar-an island country off the southeastern coast of African continent-is the cradle of all other baobab species.

The findings were published in the science journal Nature on May 15.

The researchers came to the conclusion by analyzing genetic makeup of the eight existing baobab species-six were found exclusively in Madagascar. They believe the trees originated from Madagascar and then spread to including African continent and Australia. A mix of climate fluctuations, animal pollinators, and sea level changes have shaped the tree’s environmental adaptations.

Wan Junnan, the lead author and researcher from WBG, said: “What we see about baobabs in Madagascar today was greatly influenced by both interspecific competition and the geological history of the island, especially changes in local sea levels.” Having a solid understanding of how sea level changes, and consequently climate change leading to habitat loss, impact the Malagasy baobab can provide insights into the potential challenges that other baobab species may encounter under similar circumstances, he explained.

Funded by the Scientific Research Program of the Sino-Africa Joint Research Center and the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the study has found that baobab trees experienced a process of flourish and decline, and some of them are now endangered.

Three baobab species are now classified as endangered or critically endangered on the red list of International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List. Besides climate changes and habitat losses, negative influences from other baobab species are suggested to be one of the factors threatening their survival.

The researchers called for a reassessment of the conservation status, believing IUCN may have underestimated the actual endangered status of the baobab species in Madagascar.

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