Washington, D.C. For years, scientists have debated how big a role elephants play in toppling trees in South African savannas. Tree loss is a natural process, but it is increasing in some regions, with cascading effects on the habitat for many other species. Using high resolution 3-D mapping, Carnegie scientists have for the first time quantitatively determined tree losses across savannas of Kruger National Park. They found that elephants are the primary agentstheir browsing habits knock trees over at a rate averaging 6 times higher than in areas inaccessible to them. The research also found that elephants prefer toppling trees in the 16-to-30 foot (5-8 m) range, with annual losses of up to 20% in these height classes. The findings, published in Ecology Letters, bolster our understanding of elephant conservation needs and their impacts, and the results could help to improve savanna management practices.
"Previous field studies gave us important clues that elephants are a key driver of tree losses, but our airborne 3-D mapping approach was the only way to fully understand the impacts of elephants across a wide range of environmental conditions found in savannas," commented lead author Greg Asner of Carnegie's Department of Global Ecology. "Our maps show that elephants clearly toppled medium-sized trees, creating an "elephant trap" for the vegetation. These elephant-driven tree losses have a ripple effect across the ecosystem, including how much carbon is sequestered from the atmosphere."
The technology used for monitoring trees is Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR), mounted on the fixed-wing Carnegie Airborne Observatory (CAO). It provides detailed 3-D images of the vegetation canopy at tree-level resolution using laser pulses that sweep across the African savanna. The CAO's lasers can detect even small changes in each tree's height, and its vast coverage is far superior to previous field-based and aerial photographic evaluations.'/>"/>
|Contact: Greg Asner |