Free Press Journal

African elephants are the world’s shortest sleeping mammals


Johannesburg: African elephants in the wild sleep for just an average of two hours a day and regularly go nearly two days without snoozing, making them the shortest-sleeping land mammals known, a new study has found. African elephants are the largest land animal, and evidence suggests that larger mammals tend to sleep less.

However, many studies on elephant sleep have been done in a captive setting or were unable to accurately distinguish rest from sleep. To study in more detail how elephants sleep in the wild, Paul Manger from University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa and colleagues monitored two free-roaming African elephant matriarchs in Chobe National Park in Botswana, for 35 days.

The researchers outfitted the elephants with an actiwatch implanted in the trunk to track sleep accurately, and a collar with a gyroscope to track sleeping position. The researchers found that the elephants slept an average of two hours a day, which is the shortest known sleep time of any land mammal.

On several days during the study period, the elephants went without sleep for up to 46 hours and traveled long distances of around 30 kilometres during these periods, possibly due to disturbances such as lions or poachers. In addition, they slept lying down only every few nights. This could limit their potential for daily REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, raising questions about when elephants experience this sleep state.

While only two elephants were tracked, this research provides new insights into the sleep behaviour of the species in the wild, researchers said. “Studies of sleep in captive elephants have shown that they sleep for four to six hours per day; however, the current study shows that in their natural habitat, wild, free-ranging elephants sleep only for two hours per day, the least amount of sleep of any mammal studied to date, but this appears to be related to their large body size,” said Manger. “In addition, it appears that elephants only go into REM, or dreaming, sleep every three to four days, which makes elephant sleep unique,” Manger said. The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.