Do Elephants Really Sleep Only Two Hours Per Day?

Do Elephants Really Sleep Only Two Hours Per Day?

Do Elephants Really Sleep Only Two Hours Per Day?

In Defense of Animals doesn’t support invasive research in the wild, unless there are direct and demonstrable benefits to individuals in the wild, and the animals are not harmed. This appears to be the case in this research where researchers recently studied two wild matriarch African elephants to see how much they slept every night. It was not an easy task. They attached a radio collar, a gyroscope, and a trunk motion sensor to detect movements and whether or not the elephants were actively standing or lying down. Surprisingly, these two elephants slept on average a total of just two hours per night—but not all at once.

Though this study had a small sample size of two elephants, what researchers learned is far different from the misleading previous studies on captive elephants in zoos that indicated elephants slept between three to seven hours nightly. The research on wild African elephants revealed a rich tapestry of adaptive sleep strategies. When elephants sleep while standing, they often rest the ends of their trunks on the ground. So, any time the elephants did not move and showed no activity from their trunks for five minutes or more, they were considered to be sleeping. On most nights, they slept while standing and on every third or fourth night they would lie down, either on their left or right sides. Perhaps most astounding is that their two hours of sleep didn’t occur all at once. Instead, they slept during four to five short micro sleep cycles with the longest one averaging a little over an hour.

These two elephant matriarchs first started sleep cycles approximately an hour and a half after sunset, and they woke up approximately an hour and a half before sunrise. Amazingly, they went for up to 48 hours without sleep while traveling considerable distances, for reasons unknown to researchers. After those long periods without sleep, in the days following, the elephants didn’t sleep longer to compensate for the lost downtime. They also didn’t sleep longer when they had very active days. These two particular wild elephants slept in a different place every night. 

So yes, wild elephants, at least as far as this study indicates, are believed to sleep only two hours every twenty-four hour day cycle. Perhaps during our recommended eight hours of sleep we will dream about these wonderful wild beings we are working to free from captivity in zoos and circuses.

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