A Baobab TreeIt is not only animals that can be become endangered but plants and trees as well. One of California Academy of Science’s research areas has been Madagascar. Coined as an “Island of Evolution,” Madagascar hosts a rich biodiversity of plant and animal life that is indigenous to the area and, unfortunately, highly threatened. Among the endangered in Madagascar is the Baobab Tree – Adansonia grandidieri.
Baobab is the common name of the genus Adansonia. The genus contains eight species of tree – six are native to Madagascar, while one species occurs in Mainland Africa and one in Australia. The Baobab tree is the national tree of Madagascar and is also known as the boaboa, bottle tree, the monkey bread tree, or the upside down tree: It looks as if someone took a tree out by the roots and turned it upside down. Throughout most of the year, its branches are bare, making them resemble a network of roots. All Baobab tree species occur in naturally dry areas and shed their leaves in the dry season to survive harsh drought conditions. Baobab trees can reach a height of 80 feet and a trunk diameter of 23- 36 feet. The trees store water inside the trunk during the dry season. During the rainy season, the trunk will increase or decrease in girth depending on rainfall amounts. It is difficult to determine how long these trees live, as their wood does not create growth rings, but current evidence points to a lifespan of up to 400 years.
The Adansonia grandidieri is the largest and grandest of the Baobab family. It has a massive cylindrical trunk covered with smooth, reddish-grey bark. When in bloom, the flat crowns of the trees bear bluish-green palm-like leaves and dark brown floral buds or spectacular flowers with white petals. It produces leaves from October to May and flowers from May to August. The flowers open around dusk and they all pollinate on the same night they flower. Nocturnal animals pollinate the trees by licking the nectar from the flowers and repeating this process from tree to tree. Scientists believe only lemurs are now capable of pollinating these trees. Before the colonization of Madagascar, other nocturnal animals and the elephant bird also were seed dispersers, but these species have long gone extinct.
Humans have not only affected the number of animals that can pollinate the tree, they have changed the tree’s environment and exploited its various parts. These trees historically prospered in dry, deciduous forest, especially near seasonal river or lakes. Today, they are mainly found in open, agricultural land because of the increased demand for farming. Many trees are scarred from pegs hammered into the bark by humans, who use them to climb up the trunk to collect seeds. The bark is stripped to make rope and the wood is carted away to use for thatch. Because of the changes made to their environment and the exploitation of their resources, there are few young baobab trees, which could seriously hinder species survival.Numerous organizations and researchers, like those at the Academy, along with the Malagasy government, have realized the importance of conserving the unique biodiversity of Madagascar and are working to protect this hotspot. One measure, which will help the Grandidier’s baobab, is the 2003 pledge from the President of Madagascar to triple the number of protected areas in the region. This will not only help restore an incredible area of biodiversity but also help the Malagasy people. Their livelihoods depend on the continued preservation of their watersheds and forests.
Cat Aboudara is the Special Projects Manager at California Academy of Sciences and works in the public programs division. The Academy is a wonderful fit for her because of her curiosity about the natural world and her experience in working with native California wildlife.