Who really pollinates South African Baobabs?


The African Baobab (Adansonia digitata) is a truly trans-continental species.  It is found right across Africa, from West Africa through to East Africa and down to Southern Africa.  They have an unusual life-history in that they are physically larger and live longer than most flowering plants on earth.

Pollinators more vulnerable than Baobabs

Although some researchers suggest that baobabs may be declining due to climate change, baobabs are actually the one tree that will most likely be the last to die from climate change due to their ability to survive in a wide variety of environments and extreme climatic conditions.  More vulnerable to climate change and biodiversity loss, are their pollinators.

Pollinators are essential for fruit production, if climate change were to affect the survival of the pollinators, this will threaten the income of thousands of African people who rely on baobab fruit for their income and food.

Baobab flower for research
Wide open Baobab flower, waiting for pollinator.

Efficiency of pollinators count even more

It is the efficiency of the pollinators that has a direct impact on the size and abundance of fruit that baobabs produce.  Any changes or threats to pollinator populations can have serious implications for livelihoods and future populations.  It is therefore essential that we gain a much deeper understanding of what the main pollinators of baobab flowers are and how climate change will impact on them.

Counting fruit
Counting fruit

Who like the smell of South African Baobabs?

Baobab flowers are large, white chiropterophilous flowers, which means that they evolved specifically for bat pollination. Throughout Africa it is thought that bats are their main pollinators.  Yet, in a citizen science project conducted by Dr Sarah Venter and her colleagues in 2020, they found that bats were not pollinating baobab flowers in South Africa.

Years of on the ground research
Years of on the ground research

Pollination’s impact on livelihoods

“ This was such an  unexpected finding that we realized that we needed to take a harder look, as this will have huge implications for the livelihoods of rural communities and the survival of the species” says Dr Venter.

Dr Venter and her colleagues, Dr Kelsey Glennon and Dr Wilma Augustyn have been looking into this for the last couple of years,  in order to figure out why flowers in South Africa do not attract bats.

Dr Venter realized that the first place to start looking, is into the flower attractants, i.e. the scent and nectar.  “There must be a reason why our fruit-eating bats fly straight past our flowers without visiting. Either it’s that there is not enough “reward” for the bats, or the flowers don’t have the right scent to attract them”.

Patient, on the ground research very important

The research team is currently looking at baobab nectar and scent in order to help them understand what role these characteristics are playing in determining what and how baobab flowers are pollinated across Africa.

The impacts of climate change on the biodiversity of our planet can only be understood through ground-based, ecological research.  This requires years of work and many, many hours in the field.

Thank you again Skoon!

The ongoing support of Skoon Skincare through their 1% for the planet program, has helped fund our work. Their contribution is invaluable to help us understand the deeper significance of climate change on the baobabs of Africa and consequently to secure an income for local communities who depend on baobab fruit for their livelihoods.

Baobab part of local people's livelihoods
Baobab part of local people’s livelihoods


Elthea Schlesinger