Study reveals how ‘upside down’ trees dubbed ‘mother of forest’ thrived across oceans, defying extinction - Hindustan Times
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Study reveals how ‘upside down’ trees dubbed ‘mother of forest’ thrived across oceans, defying extinction

By | Written by Lingamgunta Nirmitha Rao
May 18, 2024 10:36 PM IST

Upside down tree: The research suggests that the ancestor of eight baobab species originated in Africa's Madagascar about 41.1 million years ago.

The unique baobab trees, also known as Malagasy baobabs or ‘upside-down’ trees, have a distinctive structure and are often called the ‘mother of the forest’. The name ‘upside down’ comes from their appearance, as if their roots are upwards, unlike that of other trees.

The various names, including ‘mother of the forest’ in the Malagasy language, the ‘upside-down tree,’ and the ‘tree of life,’ because of their unique features, which you will explore as you read this.(Getty Images via BBC)
The various names, including ‘mother of the forest’ in the Malagasy language, the ‘upside-down tree,’ and the ‘tree of life,’ because of their unique features, which you will explore as you read this.(Getty Images via BBC)

According to a study published in Nature, ancient Egyptians might have marvelled at these trees dating back to around 2,300 BC. Baobabs belong to the Adansonia genus in the Malvaceae family (specifically in the Bombacoideae subfamily). There are eight different species of baobabs, each with its own unique characteristics. Interestingly, baobabs have an unusual distribution, with one species found widely across continental Africa, another restricted to Northwestern Australia, and six species endemic to Madagascar.

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The various names, including ‘mother of the forest’ in the Malagasy language, the ‘upside-down tree,’ and the ‘tree of life,’ because of their unique features, which you will explore as you read this.

Origin

The research suggests that the ancestor of eight baobab species originated in Africa's Madagascar about 41.1 million years ago while the first baobab tree appeared around 21 million years ago.

Between 20.6 million and 12.6 million years ago, the daughter species diversified, partly due to a process called reticulate evolution, which involves hybridisation. The separation into different species was also influenced by geological changes like mountain formation and volcanic activity, creating new habitats with unique climates and soils.

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How would these trees have crossed oceans?

According to the study, these baobab plants probably reached Africa and Australia by floating on or with vegetation rafts. The Indian Ocean gyre, a strong circular ocean current, likely played a crucial role in transporting baobab seed pods over long distances.

Baobab seed pods may have travelled an astonishing 4,000 miles from Madagascar to Australia with the assistance of the Indian Ocean gyre. After reaching Australia, the gyre circulated back towards Africa, potentially depositing the pods around 250 miles from their original location.

What does the study say

- All baobab species except A. digitata are listed in The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 2023.

- Three Malagasy species are at risk of extinction: Adansonia perrieri is critically endangered, and Adansonia grandidieri and Adansonia suarezensis are endangered.

- The study further said that the conservation efforts should focus on protecting Malagasy baobabs, particularly Adansonia suarezensis and Adansonia grandidieri.

Features of this tree

- Baobab trees are majestic, growing up to 82 feet (25 meters) tall and living for thousands of years. They are known as “the tree of life” because they can store water, provide food, and offer medicinal benefits from their leaves.

- Baobab fruits and seeds are edible, and their trunks can store thousands of litres of water during dry seasons. According to a BBC report, these trees can weigh several hundred tonnes, equivalent to at least 14 African elephants, and their trunks can reach a diameter of 11 meters.

- Multiple species of baobab trees are found across different regions: Adansonia digitata in Africa, Adansonia gregorii in northwestern Australia, and six endemic species in Madagascar.

- Baobab fruits are considered a superfood, and their trunk fibres can be used to make ropes or clothing. They produce large white flowers that bloom at dusk, attracting bats for pollination and serving as important bird nesting sites.

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