"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," lead author Greg Asner of Carnegie's Department of Global Ecology said in a press release.
Discovery News reports that humans have "essentially engineered" the situation by relocating elephant populations. The results, published in the journal Ecology Letters, found that elephants topple up to 20 percent of trees in their habitats, preferring to go after ones in the 16- to 30-foot range.
The study results, which were gathered in South Africa's Kruger National Park, have created a dilemma for conservationists who must balance the need to preserve elephant populations with the importance of maintaining a healthy tree population for other creatures in the ecosystem.
Previously, park officials believed the deforestation was originating from other creatures, such as rabbits.
"Our maps show that elephants clearly toppled medium-sized trees," Asner said, "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."
In this video, you can watch a mother elephant in Kruger National Park topple a tree so that her offspring can eat berries from it: