How Do Elephants Sleep?

Elephants are the largest known land-dwelling animals, appearing in very few places, like South Asia, South East Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. We all have seen elephants wide awake in zoos and animal facilities, but what about when they are fully asleep?

Elephants typically stand on their feet and upright while sleeping or lie down on one side. While lying on its side, an elephant will use its trunk as a cushion or shield against insects or ambient light. An elephant usually only sleeps around 2 hours a day. Their sleep schedule changes depending on the specified location. 

This article will explain how sleep is different depending on the species of elephant, how captive elephants sleep compared to wild elephants, how rest varies for elephants in herds, and much more. 

Elephant sleeping leaning against a tree

How Does an Elephant’s Species Affect Its Sleep?

Elephants can sleep at any time of the day, so elephants are both nocturnal and diurnal. 

While different species of elephants have varying habits, one interesting point is that they generally sleep the same way, standing upright or on one side. 

The time frame for sleep can change for these animals depending on their species and geographical locations. 

While Scientists are not sure why different types of elephants have different sleep schedules and sleeping habits, they know that sleep can vary. 

When talking about how long different elephants sleep, wild African Bush and African Forest elephants sleep the least . Found in sub-Saharan Africa, these species sleep only around 2 or 3 hours every day. 

The Asian elephant, on the other hand, sleeps up to 4 hours a day. 

Scientists cannot precisely point out why African elephants sleep less, but some say that African elephants need to eat more throughout the day and sleep less.

That makes sense, as elephants usually feed on plants for up to 18 hours daily.

Another difference between Asian and African elephants is when they sleep during the day. Surprisingly, Asian elephants usually sleep during the day, while African elephants often sleep at night. 

Once again, there’s no solid scientific reason for this difference, but it’s clear that seeing a wild African elephant is a rare sight. 

Wild vs Captive Elephants’ Sleep

Without solid scientific reasoning, we know that much like how different species of elephants have different sleeping habits, there’s also a change in how elephants sleep depending on whether they are wild. 

Wild animals sleep less than captive animals for many different reasons. 

The main factors are security from predators and a steady nutrition intake without needing to hunt or find food sources. 

Generally, the rest of their sleeping habits, like sleeping position, are the same for wild and captive elephants.

African elephant sleeping on its side in the wild

1. Sleep Duration

Wild elephants only sleep between 2 and 4 hours a day, while captive elephants are likelier to sleep 6 or 7 hours per day.

While we may not know exactly why this is the case, the justification for it is that captive elephants require less time finding plant sources and hence take less time eating their fill throughout the day. 

Also, wild elephants need to be careful of predators.

A unique trait of African elephants is that they sometimes take short naps throughout the day instead of sleeping altogether at night to deal with possible threats. 

2. Sleep Timing

Captive elephants, in general, sleep during the night. 

The main reason is that their schedules align with when caretakers should wake them up so we can see these majestic creatures during zoo visits. 

While this is different from African elephants and their usual sleep timings, there is a significant change for Asian elephants, who are usually more nocturnal. 

Captive elephants are generally needed to stay awake during the day for other reasons, like cleaning, feeding, health checkups, etc., where people need to be awake to help maintain these animals.

Herds vs Lone Elephants’ Sleep

Animals in herds tend to behave differently compared to animals that are left on their own. 

Herd Elephants

Animals left on their own usually need to care for their own needs, while animals in herds tend to have shared roles. That is also the case for elephants. 

All elephants rely on their mother and a group of female elephants until they are around three years of age, after which females may stay with the herd while males can move away and fend for themselves. 

Consequently, male elephants need to be more careful of their environment, while elephants in a herd can find strength in numbers. 

An elephant sleeping with its herd around it

Lone Elephants

The lone elephant will have to ensure that there are no predators and remain somewhat attentive throughout the day to find food and secure space. 

The elephant in a herd will be freer in these terms, where sheer numbers will usually protect the group, and the entire herd will work towards finding food. 

Not having these concerns allows the herd to sleep more freely, for longer, and more flexibly throughout the day, while lone elephants may even need to take short naps and sometimes not sleep properly.  

Final Thoughts on How Elephants Sleep

Elephants are the largest land animals on Earth right now. While they are usually seen wide awake by people visiting from across the world, their sleep is another interesting topic. 

Such gigantic creatures sleep differently according to their species, captivity status, and whether or not they are in a herd. 

While you may have never personally seen this side of their lives, now you know more about elephants.

Herd of Migrating Elephants Takes a Nap

FAQs

What Type of Threats Do Elephants Face When Sleeping?

Elephants are generally large creatures and can scare away most predators. However, when sleeping, a major problem for them is insects, so they use their trunks to protect their faces and heads.

Why Do Elephants Sleep Less Than Other Animals?

While the exact reasons are unclear, scientists have made some assumptions. One of them includes how elephants require less sleep as their body requires more time to digest their daily plant intake. Another reason is their biological makeup, allowing them to function without needing more sleep.

How Do Elephants Sleep During the Day?

Elephants will usually be more careful when they must be cautious of diurnal predators. However, they typically use their trunk to cover their face and fall asleep in the sunlight.