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Keywords:

  • Carnegie Airborne Observatory;
  • elephant trap;
  • herbivory;
  • Kruger National Park;
  • LiDAR;
  • mega-herbivore;
  • South Africa;
  • treefall dynamics;
  • tree turnover

Abstract

Herbivores cause treefalls in African savannas, but rates are unknown at large scales required to forecast changes in biodiversity and ecosystem processes. We combined landscape-scale herbivore exclosures with repeat airborne Light Detection and Ranging of 58 429 trees in Kruger National Park, South Africa, to assess sources of savanna treefall across nested gradients of climate, topography, and soil fertility. Elephants were revealed as the primary agent of treefall across widely varying savanna conditions, and a large-scale ‘elephant trap’ predominantly removes maturing savanna trees in the 5–9 m height range. Treefall rates averaged 6 times higher in areas accessible to elephants, but proportionally more treefall occurred on high-nutrient basalts and in lowland catena areas. These patterns were superimposed on a climate-mediated regime of increasing treefall with precipitation in the absence of herbivores. These landscape-scale patterns reveal environmental controls underpinning herbivore-mediated tree turnover, highlighting the need for context-dependent science and management.