Research Article

Age and architecture of the largest African Baobabs from Mayotte, France

Adrian Patrut1,2*, Roxana T. Patrut3, Laszlo Rakosy3, Karl F. von Reden4

1Faculty of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, Romania.

2Raluca Ripan Institute for Research in Chemistry, Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, Romania.

3Faculty of Biology and Geology, Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, Romania.

4NOSAS Facility, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, U.S.A.

*Correspondence: Adrian Patrut, Email: apatrut@gmail.com, Address: Babes-Bolyai University, Faculty of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, 11 Arany Janos Street, 40010 Cluj-Napoca, Romania, Tel: +40-722-214633.

ABSTRACT: 

The volcanic Comoro Islands, located in the Indian Ocean in between mainland Africa and Madagascar, host several thousand African baobabs (Adansonia digitata). Most of them are found in Mayotte, which currently belongs to France, as an overseas department. Baobabs constitute a reliable archive for climate change and millennial specimens were recently used as proxies for paleoclimate reconstructions in southern Africa. We report the investigation of the largest two baobabs of Mayotte, the Big baobab of Musical Plage and the largest baobab of Plage N’Gouja. The Big baobab of Musical Plage exhibits a cluster structure and consists of 5 fused stems, out of which 4 are common stems and one is a false stem. The baobab of Plage N’Gouja has an open ring-shaped structure and consists of 7 partially fused stems, out of which 3 stems are large and old, while 4 are young. Several wood samples were collected from both baobabs and analyzed via radiocarbon dating. The oldest dated sample from the baobab of Musical Plage has a radiocarbon date of 275 ± 25 BP, which corresponds to a calibrated calendar age of 365 ± 15 yr. On its turn, the oldest sample from Plage N’Gouja has a radiocarbon date of 231 ± 20 BP, corresponding to a calibrated age of 265 ± 15 yr. These results indicate that the Big baobab of Musical Plage is around 420 years old, while the baobab of Plage N’Gouja has an age close to 330 years. In present, both baobabs are in a general state of deterioration with many broken or damaged branches, and the Baobab of Plage N’Gouja has several missing stems. These observations suggest that the two baobabs are in decline and, most likely, close to the end of their life cycle. 

Keywords: Adansonia digitata, African baobabs, wood samples, age determination, AMS, radiocarbon dating, baobab architecture, and Mayotte

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Cite as: Patrut, A. et al. “Age and architecture of the largest African Baobabs from Mayotte, France” DRC Sustainable Future 2020, 1(1): 33-47, DOI: 10.37281/DRCSF/1.1.5

1. Introduction

The African baobab (Adansonia digitata L.), which belongs to the Bombacoideae subfamily of Malvaceae, is the best-known of the eight or nine species of the Adansonia genus (Baum, 1995; Wickens and Lowe, 2008; Pettigrew et al., 2012; Cron et al., 2016). Baobab is a top priority species for domestication and cultivation, improving the livelihoods of locals, while contributing to food security and a healthy diet. These trees constutute a reliable archive for climate change and millennial specimens were recently used as proxies for paleoclimate reconstructions in southern Africa. Understanding the past climate enables accurate predictions for sustainable urban planning and agricultural development. It has a natural distribution in the tropical arid savanna of the African continent between the latitudes 16º N and 26º S. Distribution of the African baobab throughout the tropics covers also several African islands and different areas outside Africa, where it has been introduced (Baum, 1995; Wickens and Lowe, 2008; Baum et al., 1998; Leong et al., 2009).

In 2005, we initiated an extensive research program aimed to clarify several controversial or poorly understood aspects of the architecture, development and age of the African baobab. This research relies on our new methodology, which is not limited to fallen specimens, but also allows to investigate and date live standing individuals. The original approach consists of AMS (accelerator mass spectrometry) radiocarbon dating of tiny segments extracted from wood samples, which are typically collected from inner cavities and/or from different deep incisions/entrances in the trunk/stems, fractured stems and from the outer part/exterior of large baobabs (Patrut et al., 2007, 2010abc, 2011, 2013, 2015, 2017, 2018, 2019ab). 

Reported results have revealed that all large African baobabs, with a girth of over 15 m, are always multi-stemmed. Baobabs usually start growing as single-stemmed trees and eventually become multi-stemmed trees, owing to their ability to generate periodically new stems, such as other tree species produce branches. By this special ability, baobabs develop over time architectures of increasing complexity. Therefore, our research mainly focused on the study of superlative individuals, i.e., very big and/or old baobabs. we should emphasize that traditional dendrochronological methods cannot be applied to accurately determine the architectures and ages of such superlative baobabs (Patrut et al., 2015, 2018).

Our research has identified a new type of architecture that enables African baobabs to reach old ages and very large sizes. In this architecture, the multiple stems define at ground level a circle or an ellipse, with an empty space between them; we named it ring-shaped structure (RSS). There are two subtypes of RSSs. The only structure obvious to visual observation is the open RSS in which the stems are fused or knitted at the base, are pointed the more or the less sideways, have quasi-cylindrical shapes and quasi-circular transversal sections. The most frequent is, however, the closed RSS in which the stems are pointed upward and are fused almost perfectly. The fused stems are disposed in a ring with an empty space inside. We termed this natural empty space between the fused stems false cavity (Patrut et al., 2015, 2018). According to dating results, open and closed RSSs have formed progressively and closed over time as they usually consist of stems belonging to several generations. Certain individuals have also additional stems outside the ring(s).

The oldest dated African baobabs were found to have ages greater than 2000 yr (Patrut et al., 2013,2017,2018). By these values, the African baobab becomes the longest living angiosperm. 

The Comoros Archipelago is located in the Indian Ocean, in the nothern end of the Mozambique Channel, between Mozambique and Madagascar. The Comoros, covering a total area of 2034 km2, consist of four main volcanic islands, as follow (from west to east): Grande Comore (in Swahili “Ngazidja”), Mohéli (in Shimaore “Mwali”), Anjouan (in Comorian “Ndzuwani”) and Mayotte (in Shimaore “Maore”).  

The first three Comoro islands build the so-called Union of the Comoros. The fourth island, Mayotte, is now an integral part of France, named the Department of Mayotte (in French “Département de Mayotte”). Mayotte is also the outermost region of the European Union.

Mayotte (376 km2) consists of a big island, called Grande-Terre (or Mahoré; 363 km2), a small island, named Petite-Terre (or Pamanzi; 11 km2), and several islets around these two.

Two Aadansonia species can be found in the Comoros, specifically around 3,200 specimens of A. digitata and just a few A. madagascarensis individuals. According to statistics from 2010, Mayotte hosts 2007 A. digitata and less than 10 A. madagascarensis individuals (Abdillahi et al., 2019). Certain researchers believe that the baobabs were introduced into the Comoros naturally via sea. Other researchers consider that the baobabs of Comoros were introduced by man.  

Several large and very large baobabs grow in Mayotte. The greatest concentration is in the south-east and south of the island. Here we disclose the AMS radiocarbon dating results of the two biggest African baobabs of Mayotte: the Big baobab of Musical Plage and the Baobab 1 of Plage N’Gouja.

Figure 1. Map of Mayotte. The locations of the two large baobabs, i.e., the Musical Plage and Plage N’Gouja, are shown (deigned by Roxana Patrut using Fantasy map creation software Mac).

Figure 2. General view of the Big baobab of Musical Plage taken from the east. The second largest baobab can be seen to the right of the Big Baobab (Picture taken by Adrian and Roxana Patrut).

2. Methods

2.1. Description of the two baobabs and their areas

Both baobabs are found on Grande-Terre, the big island of Mayotte, on two well-known beaches, located in the south-east and in the south of the island (Figure 1). The mean annual rainfall in these areas is around 1200 mm  and the mean annual temperature is 25.4 °C.  The Big baobab of Musical Plage is located on the so-called Musical Plage (Musical Beach), which belongs to the commune of Bandrélé (Figures 2-5). The GPS coordinates are 12º55.149′ S, 045º11.059′ E and the altitude is 1 m. Its maximum height (h) is 25.2 m, the  circumference at breast height (cbh) 23.35 m and the overall wood volume (V) reaches 200 m3. According to a very careful visual inspection, the baobab has a cluster structure and consists of 5 fused stems, out of which 4 are common stems (numbered 1 to 4) and one is a false stem (numbered 5). The false stem acts as an anchor of the tree in the sandy soil (Patrut et al., 2017). The multi-stemmed trunk is surrounded by a very large buttress. The dimensions of the big canopy are 46.0 (WE) x 34.5 (NS) m. The Big baobab of Musical Plage was located at the southern end of a system composed of three baobabs. The second baobab (three fused stems, h = 24.8 m, cbh = 12.80 m), which was positioned at only 1.15 m north from the big tree, toppled in January 2019 (Figure 6). The third baobab (one stem, h=26.5 m, cbh = 8.90 m), which was positioned at 1.90 m north of the second one,

collapsed and died in 2011. The baobab 1 of Plage N’Gouja is the biggest of the 31 African baobabs of the Plage N’Gouja (N’Gouja Beach), which belongs to the Kani-Kéli commune (Figures 7-9). The GPS coordinates are 12º57.729′ S, 045º15.120′ E and the altitude is 1 m. Its maximum height is of only 18.1 m, because all large stems and their high branches are broken. The circumference at breast height (cbh) is 20.35 m and the overall wood volume (V) reaches 170 m3. This tree exhibits an open ring-shaped structure (RSS), which is similar to that of the recently demised Chapman baobab of Botswana (Patrut et al., 2018,2019). As mentioned, the open RSS typically consists of 5-8 stems, which are fused at the base. Over time, stems may collapse and die, while new stems may emerge periodically from roots or from other fallen or broken stems.  Such multi-stemmed and multi-generation baobabs are going through successive cycles of death and rebirth from their remains (Patrut et al., 2010). The baobab 1 of Plage N’Gouja consists of 7 partially fused stems, out of which 3 are large and “old” (numbered 1, 4 and 5) and 4 are young (numbered 2, 3, 6 and 7). At least one large stem, which was positioned outside the ring, is missing and some regrowth emerge from its stump (numbered 0).  

2.2. Sample collection

Several wood samples were collected from the standing stems of both baobabs, using long Haglöf increment borers (0.80-1.00 m long, 0.010-0.012 m inner diameter). Four samples were long enough to  be investigated by AMS radiocarbon dating. These samples were labelled MP-1, MP-2, MP-3 and NG-1. Several tiny pieces/segments, of the length of 10-3 m (designated as “a” and “b”), were extracted from predetermined positions/distances along each sample.

2.3. Sample preparation

The α-cellulose pretreatment method was used for removing soluble and mobile organic components (Patrut et al., 2017). The resulting samples were combusted to CO2, which was next reduced to graphite on iron catalyst (Vogel et al, 1984; Sofer, 2000). Eventually, the resulting graphite samples were analysed by AMS.

2.4. AMS measurements

AMS radiocarbon measurements were performed at the NOSAMS Facility of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution by using the Pelletron®Tandem 500 kV AMS system (Povinec et al., 2009; Roberts et al., 2010). The obtained fraction modern values were ultimately converted to a radiocarbon date. Radiocarbon dates and errors were rounded to the nearest year.

2.5. Calibration

The radiocarbon dates were calibrated and converted into calendar ages with the OxCal v4.3 for Windows according to Bronk, 2009 by using the SHCal13 atmospheric data set (Hogg et al., 2013).

3. Results and discussion

3.1. Radiocarbon dates and calibrated ages

Radiocarbon dates, expressed in radiocarbon years BP (before present, i.e., before the reference year 1950 CE) and calibrated ages (expressed in calendar years CE, i.e., common era) of 6 sample segments are listed in Table 1. The 1σ probability distribution (68.2%) was selected to derive calibrated age ranges. For one segments, the 1σ distribution is consistent with two ranges of calendar years. For 3 segments, the 1σ distribution corresponds to three ranges and for other 2 segments to four ranges of calendar years. For all 6 dated segments, the confidence interval of one range is considerably greater than that of the other(s); therefore, it was selected as the cal CE range of the sample (marked in italics) for the purpose of this discussion. For obtaining single age values, corresponding each to an assigned year, we derived a mean value for each of the six selected ranges. The assigned years for the 6 sample segments are also shown in Table 1. 

We used this approach for selecting calibrated age ranges and single values for sample ages in all our previous publications on AMS radiocarbon dating of large and old angiosperm trees, especially of baobabs (Patrut et al., 2007, 2010abcd, 2011, 2013, 2015, 2017ab, 2018, 2019ab, 2020).

3.2. Sample ages and errors

Sample ages represent the difference between the year 2020 CE and the mean value of the selected age range (marked in italics). The sample ages and the corresponding errors, which are expressed in calendar years, were rounded to the nearest 5 years. Sample ages of the 6 sample segments are also presented in Table 1.

Table 1. Radiocarbon dating results and calibrated ages of samples collected from the Big baobab of Musical Plage (MP) and from the Baobab 1 of Plage N’Gouja (NG).

Tree

 

 

 

Sample/

segment

code

Height1

(m)

Depth2

(m)

 

Radiocarbon date

[error]

(14C yr BP)

 

Cal CE range

[confidence interval]

Sample/

segment age

[error]

(cal yr)

Big Baobab of

Musical Plage

MP-1a

2.95

0.60

211 [±22]

1670-1678 [8.9%]

1732-1785 [53.0%]

1794-1800 [6.3%]

260 [±25]

MP-1b

2.95

0.91

275 [±25]

1635-1670 [60.3%]

1785-1794 [7.9%]

365 [±15]

MP-2a

2.50

0.65

220 [±22]

1669-1675 [6.7%]

1738-1786 [56.9%]

1792-1796 [6.5%]

260 [±25]

MP-3a

1.85

0.45

157 [±32]

1686-1728 [19.2%]

1804-1814 [5.3%]

1834-1892 [28.3%]

1924-… [15.3%]

160 [±30]

Baobab 1 of

Plage N’Gouja

 

NG-1a

1.80

0.40

160 [±30]

1688-1728 [18.8%]

1804-1815 [5.2%]

1832-1892 [28.8%]

1923-… [15.4%]

155 [±30]

NG-1b

1.80

0.78

231 [±20]

1664-1672 [9.2%]

1742-1772 [35.3%]

1778-1796 [23.7%]

265 [±15]

Notes: 1Height above ground level. 2Depth in the wood from the exterior.

3.3. Dating results of samples

We collected three samples from the Big baobab of Musical Plage. Two samples, MP-1 and MP-2 were extracted from the largest stem 1 (cbh = ca. 12 m) and one sample, MP-3, from the false stem 5. The deepest dated segment MP-1b had a radiocarbon date of 275 ± 25 BP, which corresponds to a calibrated calendar age of 365 ± 15 yr. The segment was collected at a height of 2.95 m above ground and a depth of 0.91 m in the wood. In this direction and at this height, the theoretical pith is situated at 1.25 m from the bark. By estimating the growth rate variation, we consider that the age of the largest stem of the Big baobab of Musical Plage is 420 ± 30 years. A visual inspection in a damaged area of this stem revealed 24 growth rings on the last 30 mm of wood, just below the bark. This value shows that the current growth rate is very slow, of only 1.2 x 10-3 m yr-1. 

Sample MP-3 was collected from the deepest end of the false stem 5, which has its upper part and the branches very twisted. Some large baobabs exhibit peculiar structures that are trapezoidal or triangular in horizontal section. According to our radiocarbon investigation, the oldest age can be found toward the upper contact with the larger adjacent stem, while the age decreases toward the opposite sharp extremity. We called such peculiar structures false stems. The false stem emerges from a larger stem and may reach horizontal length values up to 3-5 m. The upper part extends upward obliquely and branches out, while the lower part merges with the root system. False stems are a special type of buttress, which plays the role of an anchor for large baobabs. False stems grow much faster than normal stems (Patrut et al., 2017b). The radiocarbon date of the segment MP-3a, which originates from an area very close to the contact with the adjacent stem 4, where the false stem emerged, was found to be 157 ± 32 BP. This radiocarbon date corresponds to a calibrated age of 160 ± 30 calendar yr. According to this value, we consider that the false stem 3 is younger than 200 years.

Three samples were collected from stems 1 and 4 of the Baobab 1 of Plage N’Gouja. Only one sample, NG-1, extracted from the largest stem 1 (cbh = ca. 9.5 m), was long enough for accurate dating by means of AMS radiocarbon investigation. The deepest dated segment NG-1b had a radiocarbon date of 231 ± 20 BP, which corresponds to a calibrated age of 265 ± 15 yr. This segment was collected at a height of 1.80 m above ground and a depth of 0.78 m in the wood. In this direction and at this height, the theoretical pith is situated at a distance of 1.20 m from the bark. By estimating the growth rate variation, we consider that the age of stem 1 of the baobab Plage N’Gouja is 330 ± 30 years, which is very probable close to the age of the other large stems 4 and 5. The four young stems, 2, 3, 6 and 7, are neither large nor old enough for radiocarbon dating. They likely replace three older stems of the ring, which toppled and died around 100 years ago.

As compared to other large African baobabs with similar sizes from different regions of the world, the baobabs of Mayotte are considerably younger. This fact is mainly due to the volcanic origin and soil of Mayotte, as well as to the high amount of annual rainfall, which favor rapid growth.

5. Conclusions

The volcanic Comoro Islands are known for their picturesque landscape, as well as for their flora and fauna, including some spectacular African baobabs. Many baobabs grow in Mayotte, the easternmost main island of the archipelago. We report the AMS radiocarbon dating of the two largest baobabs of Mayotte, the Big baobab of Musical Plage and the largest baobab of Plage N’Gouja. The Big baobab of Musical Plage possesses a cluster structure, which includes 5 fused stems, out of which 4 are common stems and one is a false stem; the latter acts as an anchor of the tree in the sandy soil. The Baobab of Plage N’Gouja exhibits an open ring-shaped structure, which currently consists of 7 partially fused stems, out of which 3 stems are large and old, while 4 stems are young. Several wood samples extracted from both baobabs were dated by radiocarbon. 

The oldest dated sample from the Big baobab of Musical Plage had a radiocarbon date of 275 ± 25 BP, which corresponds to a calibrated calendar age of 365 ± 15 yr. On its turn, the oldest sample for Baobab of Plage N’Gouja had a radiocarbon date of 231 ± 20 BP, translating to a calibrated age o 265 ± 15 yr. According to these results, the Big baobab of Musical Plage is around 420 years old and the baobab of Plage N’Gouja has an age close to 330 years.

Both baobabs have a general state of deterioration with many broken or damaged branches, and even with several missing stems for the Baobab of Plage N’Gouja. These observations indicate that the two baobabs are in decline and, most likely, close to the end of their life cycle, in part because Mayotte is in the path of tropical cyclones with very strong winds. 

Apart from its important role played in carbon sequestration, the baobab is a top priority species for domestication and cultivation, improving the livelihoods of locals, while contributing to food security and a healthy diet (Simbo et al., 2013). The baobab is a reliable archive for climate change (Robertson et al., 2006) and millennial specimens were recently used as proxies for paleoclimate reconstructions in southern Africa (Woodborne et al., 2015, 2016, 2018). Understanding the past climate enables accurate predictions for sustainable urban planning and agricultural development.

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Wickens, G.E.  and Lowe, P. “The baobabs: pachycauls of Africa, Madagascar, and Australia.” Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands, (1st edition) 2008 (doi: 10.1007/978-1-4020-6431-9).

Woodborne, S., Gandiwa, P., Hall, G., Patrut, A. and Finch., J. “A regional stable carbon isotope dendro-climatology from South African summer rainfall area.” PLoS ONE 2016, 11 (7) : e0159361. (doi : 10.1371/journal.pone.0159361).

Woodborne, S., Hall, G., Jones, C. W., Loader, N.J., Patrut, A., Patrut, R. T., Robertson, I., Winkler,  S. R. and Winterbach, C. W. “A 250-year, proxy rainfall record from southern Botswana.” Studia UBB Chemia 2018, LXIII (1) : 109-123, (doi : 10.24193/subbchem.2018.1.09).

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Linked preprint: 

Patrut et al. “Age and architecture of the largest African Baobabs from Mayotte, France.” DRC Preprints 2020, DOI: 10.37281/Preprints/1

Figures:

Figure 3. General view of the Big baobab of Musical Plage taken from the west. The second largest baobab can be observed to the left (Picture taken by Adrian and Roxana Patrut).

Figure 4. View of the Big baobab of Musical Plage taken from the east, with stem numbering (Picture taken by Adrian and Roxana Patrut).

Figure 5. View of the Big baobab of Musical Plage taken from the west, with stem numbering (Picture taken by Adrian and Roxana Patrut).

Figure 6. The photograph taken in 2019 shows the second baobab of Musical Plage collapsed on the ground, while the Big baobab is still standing (Picture devised from L’info KWEZI France Mayotte).

Figure 7. General view of the Baobab 1 of Plage N’Gouja taken from the south-west (Picture taken by Adrian and Roxana Patrut).

 

Figure 8. General view of the Baobab 1 of Plage N’Gouja taken from the west with stem numbering (Picture taken by Adrian and Roxana Patrut).

Figure 9. View of the Baobab 1 of Plage N’Gouja taken from the south-east with stem numbering (Picture taken by Adrian Patrut).

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