How do Elephants sleep? (when, where & how long?)

By: Mario
Elephant sleeping standing up

Have you ever seen an elephant sleeping? It’s not something most people think about when they appreciate the beauty and majesty of these creatures. But animals need sleep just like humans!

Sleep is a critical biological function for all mammals. It’s when the body resets and repairs itself.

Humans need upwards of nine hours of sleep to stay healthy. Other animals might spend 18 hours or more.

So, where do elephants fall into the mix? Do they even sleep at all?

Elephants: Light Sleepers of the Animal Kingdom

Believe it or not, elephants do sleep. However, they need very little of it compared to us humans.

On average, wild elephants sleep two hours! Yes, you read that correctly. These 15,000-pound behemoths only need a mere two hours of rest to stay healthy.

Imagine all the things you could do if you only had to sleep that long!

That figure mostly belongs to elephants living in Africa. But even Asian elephants like to stay awake. On average, the Asian species sleeps more than four hours a day.

As if the low requirement of two hours wasn’t surprising enough, all elephant species can stay awake for nearly two days. They can stay up for 46 hours without a wink of sleep.

Elephant Sleeping Habits Are an Enigma

These animals’ sleeping habits are still largely an enigma. Researchers don’t know what triggers sleep or when they know it’s time to get rest.

We don’t know precisely if it’s the lighting, weather, or a biological clock. But what we do know is that elephants have relatively similar sleep needs to humans. The difference is that they need much less of it.

Elephants go through many of the same sleep cycles you do every night.

They go through light and deep sleep before entering a stage of rapid eye movement (REM). Some researchers even believe that they dream.

There’s no concrete proof of that, but many gentle giants will move around and make noise, indicating that their minds are active and dreaming.

Related: 10 Elephant Facts you probably didn’t Know

Wild Elephant Sleeping Habits – Diurnal Or Nocturnal?

So what does an elephant look like when it’s sleeping?

Those two hours of rest usually rarely happen at one time. Elephants prefer to take short naps throughout the day. They may rest for 20 minutes before getting up and doing it again hours later.

For that reason, elephants are a combination of nocturnal and diurnal animals. They’re active around the clock. That said, most activity occurs during the day.

If you didn’t know, elephants can eat well over 300 pounds of food every day. The safest time to get their fill is when the sun is out, so they’re more active during the day.

Researchers found that most of those small naps happen between the hours of 1 AM and 6 AM.

Do Elephants Sleep Standing Up or Lying Down?

Here’s another reason why you might never see an elephant sleeping.

These animals often sleep standing up!

When you think about it, that habit makes sense.

An adult elephant can tip the scales at almost 13,000 pounds or more. That’s a lot of weight and mass to move. Elephants have some of the biggest legs in the animal kingdom, but it still takes a lot to get up and down.

Furthermore, wild elephants have to be wary of predators. Sitting or lying down doesn’t give the animal much wiggle room to evade attack should a predator catch them by surprise.

The ability to sleep standing up gives the elephant a better chance of survival in an emergency.

Elephants will lie down occasionally. When they do, they may use their trunk as a pillow!

Depending on the time of day and environment, they might also use the trunk to cover the face, protecting it from the sun and flies.

When it’s time to get up, elephants typically roll on their side before rising to their feet.

Related: How Strong Are Elephants?

Elephant sleeping flat out on the ground

Group Sleeping Habits

As you may know, elephants have established social structures. They live in groups and do everything they can to protect the pack. That pack mentality comes in handy when it comes to sleep.

In the wild, elephants often sleep in shifts. That’s when you’re most likely to see one of these gentle giants take a load off and lay down.

Some group members stay awake to watch while others can relax and get some shuteye. In many cases, the matriarchal figure of the group is the one to take the mantle of watchkeeper.

It’s not uncommon for the matriarch to hold off on sleep for days at a time. That behavior shows her fierce protection and devotion to the herd.

How Baby Elephants Sleep

The youngsters get a little extra protection. They will often sleep by their mother’s side or lie down next to her as she stands guard.

Of course, she doesn’t protect the baby alone. Other members of the herd will help, too! After all, babies usually sleep more than adults.

Here’s drone footage of a herd protecting the younger elephants while they sleep lying down

Sleeping Habits of Captive Elephants

You might be interested to learn that elephants living in zoos and sanctuaries sleep more than their wild counterparts.

Researchers are still learning more about why.

Biologically, zoo-dwelling elephants are the same as those living in the savannahs of Africa. Yet, they can sleep much longer.

Elephants living in zoos are known to sleep between four and six hours every day. That’s still a far cry from humans and other animals, but that’s up to three times as much as wild beasts.

Experts believe that the change comes down to the animal’s lifestyle.

In a zoo, all of the animal’s needs are taken care of around the clock. They don’t have to worry about finding those hundreds of pounds of food. It comes to them by way of a dedicated keeper every single day.

That means that the animals are using less energy to stay healthy. They also don’t have to worry about the pressure of finding watering holes.

On top of all that, they don’t have to stress about safety. Elephants have zero predators in a zoo, so they can rest easily without a worry in the world.

That’s evident by observing how differently they sleep. Elephants in captivity are likelier to lie down while sleeping instead of staying up. Plus, they usually sleep on their own.

With no predators around, there’s no need for taking turns or having a matriarch watch for trouble.

The Beauty of the Restless Giant

It’s hard to imagine that an animal of this size can get by on only a couple of hours of sleep a day, but they do!

Biologically, elephants don’t need a full night as we do. They do just fine with short naps.

If you ever get the opportunity to see an elephant in the wild, look closely. They may be drifting off into dreamland even as they stand before you!

Also read: Do Elephants Like Humans?