Do baobab trees matter?

Liam Taylor (MSc candidate) investigates the ecological consequences of elephant-induced tree mortality on bird communities.

Liam Taylor is an all-round naturalist, who takes identification of everything he sees seriously.  From insects to reptiles and mammals to trees, but his passion is birds.  He is one of those birders who the moment a bird tweets or flies past everything else is forgotten.  Don’t even try to finish the conversation, as he won’t be listening until he has identified the intruder and returned his attention to you.  So, the only way to get Liam to study baobabs was to entice him with birds.

Mapungubwe National Park is situated in the extreme northern boundary of South Africa on the Limpopo River and where, I may add, are a lot of great birds for enthusiastic birders like Liam.  In addition, there is a high density of baobabs trees which are under threat from elephant damage.

Over the last few years, the park has lost dozens of baobabs and although baobabs are not threatened, per se, they are an important part of the landscape as they act as a keystone species.  Keystone species are organisms that play an important role in an ecosystem by keeping it together and in which the lives of multiple plant and animal species depend on it in that landscape.

Baobabs provide food and habitat for many animals such as leopard, baboons, bushbabies, bats, lizards, snakes and a wide assemblage of birds ranging from swallows to parrots.  Two characteristics of baobabs that make them ideal habitats for animals are their large size and the presence of cavities (hollows and holes) in the tree.

Baobab trees can reach heights of 20 m with trunks that may span up to 10 m. Large trees are often the favoured habitat of nesting raptors (predatory birds) and vultures.  Baobabs that tower over the surrounding vegetation provide safe nesting sites for birds.  Naturally forming cavities are readily utilised by birds such as the threatened southern ground hornbill. Baobab cavities also provide roosting habitat for many nocturnal animals such as bats, bushbabies and owls and their soft bark makes them ideal for cavity excavating grey-headed parrot.  It is estimated that there could be over 100 species of birds that utilize baobabs in some form or another.

The loss of baobabs from Mapungubwe National Park is thus of great concern.  The aim of Liam’s MSc study is to investigate and quantify the keystone role of baobab trees in supporting bird communities in Mapungubwe National Park.  This will provide new insights into the ecological importance of baobabs and help inform the management and conservation of the trees in the park and in other parks across Africa.

Liam registered as an MSc student with the University of the Witwatersrand.  His study was initiated by the Baobab Foundation and who together with the NRF (National Research Fund), Birdlife South Africa, SAEON (South African Environmental Observation Network), SanParks (South African National Parks) and the Botanical Education Trust support and supervise Liam’s work.

Dr Sarah Venter