Article image

Mysterious origin of baobab trees has finally been revealed

The baobab tree, often celebrated as the “mother of the forest” or the “tree of life,” captures the fascination of many with its imposing presence and unique features.

Despite its cultural and ecological significance, the evolutionary origins of the baobab tree have remained largely enigmatic, wrapped in a veil of mystery.

Madagascar as the cradle of baobabs

A new study led by the Sino-Africa Joint Research Center, based at the Wuhan Botanical Garden of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has shed light on these magnificent trees.

The comprehensive study, which utilized advanced genomic and ecological analyses, pinpoints Madagascar as the ancestral home of the baobab from which all existing species have dispersed.

The research was based on high-quality genomic data from all eight currently existing baobab species. The findings suggest that the baobabs first appeared in Madagascar and subsequently spread across Africa and Australia.

The study reveals how various factors like environmental changes, animal pollinators, and fluctuations in local sea levels have tailored each species to thrive in its specific environment.

Insights from the genomes

The genetic clues indicate that all baobabs likely share a common origin in Madagascar. Intriguingly, six out of the eight known species are exclusively found on this island, hinting at a deep-rooted history intertwined with the geological and ecological dynamics of Madagascar.

“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,” said Dr. WAN Junnan, the lead researcher of the study.

Understanding how these environmental factors influence the Malagasy baobab provides insights that could help predict how baobabs in other regions might respond to similar challenges.

Historical data on global mean sea levels (GMSL) over the past 10 million years suggest that baobab trees were more likely to spread and expand during periods of lower sea levels.

This pattern could be disrupted by the rising sea levels associated with ongoing climate change, potentially impacting the future expansion and survival of baobab populations.

Conservation challenges for baobab trees

The unique ecological niches that baobabs inhabit, combined with their limited opportunities for expansion, present a complex conservation challenge.

The loss of habitat for the trees and their crucial pollinators, such as fruit bats and hawkmoths, further threatens these iconic species. As a result, researchers are calling for a reevaluation of the conservation status of some baobab species.

There are ongoing proposals to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species to update the classification of certain baobabs from endangered to critically endangered. This status would better reflect the severe declines some populations have faced.

More about baobab trees

Baobab trees are among the most iconic and resilient flora native to the arid regions of Madagascar, Africa, and Australia. Known for their enormous trunk girth, baobabs store large quantities of water to endure harsh drought conditions. 

These trees are often called “upside down trees” due to the root-like appearance of their gnarled branches. Baobabs can live for thousands of years, which makes them historical landmarks in their respective landscapes.

Their fruit, known as baobab fruit, is rich in vitamin C, antioxidants, and other nutrients, making it a valuable food source in arid regions. The fruit has a velvety shell and is about the size of a coconut, containing a dry, nutritious pulp that tastes somewhat like a blend of grapefruit, pear, and vanilla.

The baobab also plays a crucial role in the ecosystem as a habitat and food source for various birds and animals, including some endangered species. In addition to its ecological roles, the baobab tree has significant cultural importance and appears in many local myths and legends as a symbol of life and resilience.

The study is published in the journal Nature.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates. 

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day