By Reuters TV
(Reuters) - Scientists in Chile are studying the deaths of hundreds of the country's Araucaria, or "Monkey Puzzle," trees, which they believe may have been weakened by climate change and then killed off by disease.
Experts from the biotechnology faculty of forestry science at the southern University of Conception have ruled out disease being solely responsible for the widespread damage, which sees the massive trees die from the head down.
Instead, they believe the trees are falling victim to diseases to which they were previously immune because they have been weakened by the climate.
"We believe there are also environmental factors causing this," Professor Eugenio Sanfuentes, a researcher from the university, told Reuters in an interview. "We have also received reports from Argentina, where they have an Argentine Araucaria, that they are also seeing these trees die off."
Sanfuentes said that in the Nahuelbuta coastal mountain range, which hosts a national park famous for its Araucarias in the Bío Bío region 450 kilometres (280 miles) south of the Chilean capital Santiago, rainfall has dropped considerably, with drier spring and summer periods, higher temperatures and less snow in winter.
In some areas, 70 percent to 80 percent of the Araucaria trees are exhibiting signs of damage or have died, he added.
"Locals say this change in climate has been ongoing for at least five or six years and they believe it coincides with the death of the trees," he said.
A similar situation has also been detected in the Andes mountain range, he added.
The Araucaria tree is a form of evergreen native to South America's southern forests that can grow to up to 50 meters in height with a trunk of up to two meters in diameter.
(Reporting by Reuters Television, writing by Fabian Andrés Cambero and Aislinn Laing; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)