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Elephants: Interesting Sleeping Habits

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This video shows two African bull elephants lying down to sleep at Kariega Game Reserve in South Africa. This is very unusual as large elephants mostly sleep standing up. Their large size makes it difficult for them to get up from the ground. Read on to find out some interesting information about elephants sleeping habits. 

How Many Hours Do Elephants Sleep?

Most humans sleep around six to eight hours a night, whereas wild elephants only sleep about two hours in a 24 hour period. This is the shortest sleeping time of any mammal. The short amount of sleep is mostly because elephants need to eat for the rest of the time. The big bull elephants in the video weigh between 4,000 and 6,000 kilograms (8,820-13,230 pounds). They need to eat around 300 kg of food every day. It takes these elephants a lot of time to collect this food and so they don't have a lot of time to sleep. Elephants in zoos are fed on high quality food which gives them much more time to sleep.

Kariega Sleeping Elephant

Do Elephants Sleep Together?

In the wilderness, elephants need to be aware of predators, such as lions (and humans). Some of the elephants in the herd stay awake while others take a nap. If there is any danger, the elephants who are awake, and probably feeding, will alert the rest of the herd and wake them up. The matriarch, the biggest and oldest female in the herd, might not sleep for many days to make sure her herd is safe. She will only to take a nap when she knows all of the elephants are safe.

Do Elephants Need REM Sleep?

Scientists have always thought that mammals need rapid eye movement (REM) sleep to help memory consolidation and convert daily experiences into long-term memories. Elephants, being the largest of all land mammals and known for having great long-term memories, should also need regular REM sleep. However, recent research has discovered that elephants only go into REM sleep every three or four days and they do this only when lying down. This is because mammals lose muscle tone during REM sleep. For an elephant it is very difficult to remain standing, unless resting against a tree or a large rock, while in REM sleep. 

"It seems like elephants only dream every three to four days. Given the well-known memory of the elephant this calls into question theories associating REM sleep with memory consolidation," says Prof Paul Manger, one of the research team from the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa.

Read the full research about the interesting sleeping habits of two African elephant matriarchs studied in their natural habitat.

Kariega Elephant Sleeping

Why Don't Elephants Usually Sleep Lying Down?

The bigger the animal, the more difficult it is to get up when lying down. Young elephants can be seen sleeping flat on the ground but big elephant bulls will sometimes lean against a big tree when napping to save them from struggling to their feet after dozing off to dreamland. In the video you can see the two big bulls sleeping on the ground, which means they feel completely safe and comfortable with their surroundings. The smaller of the two is lying on a slight slope which will help him to get up. The big bull will have to rock himself to get enough momentum to get back on his feet.

The two bulls in the video and photo above are enjoying some REM sleep in the presence of a game drive vehicle and the safari guests thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The bulls feel completely comfortable in the presence of the vehicle. What a privilege to be so fully immersed in nature!

Do you have any videos, photos or stories of sightings of sleeping elephants during your Kariega Game Reserve safari experience? Please share them with us on Facebook, Instagram and/or Twitter.