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BEHAVIOUR  - Editorial Comment

Editorial Comment (Editorial Overview Text Replicated on Overall Species page - Loxodonta africana - African Elephant)

[Data from Loxodonta but not necessarily Loxodonta cyclotis - Forest Elephant]

Elephants may spend 12 - 18 hours a day feeding. They manipulate food and bring it to the mouth using their trunk, with different strategies used on different food types, such as pulling up long grass with the trunk, while short grass is loosened and kicked into a pile with the forefeet, then swept up in the trunk. African elephants, unlike Elephas maximus - Asian Elephants, apparently do not combine the use of the trunk and a foreleg to break branches, although they will break branches using the trunk. Individual small items may be selected using the trunk tip. Elephants may travel for considerable distances to reach rare trees while they are fruiting and may also travel rapidly to the vicinity of an isolated shower to make use of the lush grass growing following the rain. Feeding rates may vary considerably between males and females, in different habitats, and at different times of day and are affected by the amount of preparation required to eat the food as well as by degree of hunger.

Elephants usually drink at least daily, and at least every few days. They suck water up with the trunk then squirt it into the mouth. They can drink rapidly by this method, four or six litres per trunkful and 80 - 160 L in only five minutes. They are generally thought to prefer fresh, flowing water to stagnant water but have been seen to drink from a muddy wallow despite the presence of clean lake water just metres away. They may make difficult, dangerous journeys to reach water and in drought conditions use the feet and trunk to dig wells in sandy dry river bottoms to reach water.

Further information on diet is provided in African Elephant - Natural Diet (Literature Reports)

(References are available in detailed literature reports below)

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Feeding Behaviour

Source Information [Data from Loxodonta but not necessarily Loxodonta cyclotis - Forest Elephant]
  • Adult elephants spend up to 18 hours a day feeding. (B10.49.w21)
  • In response to sudden rainfall, elephants may travel rapidly: e.g. up to 30 km (19 miles) to an area where an isolated shower has taken place, in order to use the lush grass which will then grow. (B285.w3)
  • In forests, elephants may travel long distances to find rare trees which are fruiting. (B285.w3)
  • When elephants utilise dangerous feeding areas (e.g. farmlands), they tend to use them only at night. (B285.w3)
  • Elephants may strip bark from trees to feed on in the dry season. (B285.w3)
  • Elephants may knock trees down to get at twigs and leaves in the dry season. (B285.w3)
  • Elephants may raid crops to feed. (B285.w3)
  • Elephants in Queen Elizabeth Park spend three quarters of their time on feeding, those in Murchison Falls and in the Sengwe area spent about 12 to 14 hours per day feeding. (B384.9.w9)
  • Elephants in Sengwe took in on average 2.5 trunkfuls of food per minute, with bulls taking in food at a slightly higher rate than did cows. Feeding was fastest in the wet season, slower in the cold season and slowest in the hot season. The rate of feeding was similar whether they were grazing or browsing. In Queen Elizabeth Park a feeding rate of nearly six trunkfuls per minute was observed. (B384.9.w9)
  • The mean ingestion rate is approximately 72 g dry weight of food per minute. (B384.9.w9)
  • To eat roots of tussock grasses, the tussock is kicked free with the foot then the root bases bitten off with the stems and leaves often left uneaten. (B384.9.w9)
  • In soft sands (Kalahari sands), elephants dig to reach roots up to one metre down; in shallow soil areas with a hard surface this is not possible. (B384.9.w9)
  • Long grass is eaten by curling the trunk around it and pulling. (B384.9.w9)
  • For short grass, the elephant uproots grass by kicking it, sweeps the uprooted grasses into a pile with the trunk, picks it up, rubs it against the foreleg or bounces it on the ground, then eats it. (B384.9.w9)
  • African elephants strip bark using a sideways pulling motion, in which the bark is dragged over the anterior tooth ridges. (B384.9.w9)
  • African elephants use a lateral pulling motion to strip bark, pulling it over the tooth ridges. (J325.125.w1)
  • For some species (monkeybread and Detarium microcarpum), a length of branch is rolled in the mouth and chewed on, then dropped once the bark has been chewed off. (B384.9.w9)
  • Thorns of the thorny yellow-fever tree are flattened between a tusk and the trunk base. (B384.9.w9)
  • To expose small roots and tubers, elephants scrape at the soil with a forefoot; for larger roots and tubers the tusks may be used to dig up and fragment the item which is then picked up using the trunk. (B453.2.w2)
  • Herbs, grasses and small bushes may be uprooted whole and banged against a forefoot or the trunk base to knock off soil before they are eaten. (B453.2.w2)
  • Small branches may be torn off a tree and broken into pieces using the trunk before being eaten. (B453.2.w2)
  • African elephants, unlike Elephas maximus - Asian Elephants, apparently do not combine the use of the trunk and a foreleg to break branches. (B453.2.w2)
  • Individual small items such as buds and berries may be selected using the trunk and eaten. (B453.2.w2)
  • To eat bark, one tusk is used to gouge the tree trunk and lever off strips of bark, which are then torn off with the trunk and eaten. (B453.2.w2)
  • Trees may be shaken to release fruits. (B453.2.w2)
  • Whole trees may be uprooted by pushing, bringing fruit, leaves, roots and bark into reach. (B453.2.w2)
  • Once food is in the mouth, it is manipulated by the tongue into position between the occlusal surfaces of the molars for grinding to fine shreds. (B453.2.w2)
  • When food items contain long fibres, the remainder of the item may be stripped off and the fibrous parts rolled into a bundle and dropped from the mouth. (B453.2.w2)
  • Elephants with tongue or tusk injury tend to feed on soft vegetation: grasses, herbs etc. rather than items which need additional manipulation and breakage before being chewed, such as wood, bark and roots. (B453.2.w2)
  • Feeding rates, measured as number of trunkfuls of food eaten per unit time (usually per minute), may vary considerably between males and females, in different habitats, and at different times of day. (B451.5.w5)
    • Factors affecting feeding rate may include degree of hunger (e.g. rapid eating on first rising after resting at night), and the amount of preparation required prior to ingestion of the food: this tends to be less for feeding on grass than for feeding in forests with food items needing to be searched for. (B451.5.w5)
    • In a study in Uganda, a maximum of 14 per minute was recorded for a male feeding on bush vegetation near a lake, while females in grassland varied from 3.5/minute in the morning (0800 - 0900 hrs) to 8.5/minute in the evening (1900 - 2000 hrs) with an overall rate of 5.9 per minute. (B451.5.w5)
    • A study in Rhodesia found an overall rate of about 2.4 trunkfuls per minute for females and 2.7 for males. (B451.5.w5)
    • A study in the Serengeti found rates of 2.4 trunkfuls per minute for feeding on trees, 5.3 per minute for feeding on grass. (B451.5.w5)
  • The trunk is used to gather and break or pull off vegetation which is then placed into the mouth. (B387.w4)
  • Elephants are not very selective feeders. (B387.w4)
  • Elephants eat bark, and may ring-bark large trees. (B387.w4)
  • Elephants knock down trees and smash bushes. (B387.w4)
  • Much of the time, elephants gather food at low level. In one study 75% of feeding activity was at ground level and in another 85% was at elephant elbow height or lower. More of the time feeding at higher levels may occur during the dry season when browse becomes a more important component of the diet. (B387.w4)
  • It is not clear whether elephants knock trees down primarily to gain food or whether they are knocked down by male elephants in excitement or as a reaction to a social situation, with the provision of food as only a subsidiary feature. (B387.w4)
  • The feet and tusks may be used in coordination with the trunk to gather food. (B387.w4)
    • A grass tussock held with the trunk may be kicked to remove soil. (B387.w4)
    • Feet and tusks are used to break up earth and get at roots or at salty soil. (B387.w4)
    • Feet and tusks may be used to break up tree trunks to loosen bark. (B387.w4)
    • Feet and the trunk may be used to dig water holes. (B387.w4)
    • Elephants may find it tiring to stretch upwards with the trunk to gather food for prolonged periods. (B387.w4)
      • To gather fruits, a tree may be butted to loosen the fruits, allowing them to be picked off the ground. (B387.w4)
    • Elephants are attracted to fallen, fermenting fruits of Sclerocarya. (B387.w4)
    • Incoordinated behaviour has been reported following consumption of ripe fruit by elephants. (B387.w4)
    • Feeding may take ten to 18 hours per 24 hour period. (B387.w4)
      • The time spent feeding may vary seasonally. (B387.w4)
  • Large gatherings may occur temporarily at a good food source, for example when stands of Borassus palms are fruiting during the dry season. (B387.w4)

Drinking:

  • Elephants look for water to drink usually daily, and otherwise at longest every few days. Water is sucked up with the trunk then squirted into the mouth. (B147)
  • Elephants can drink their daily requirement of 80 - 160 L (20 - 40 US gallons) of water in less than five minutes. (B285.w3)
  • Elephants suck water into the trunk using the chest and diaphragm muscles; they can suck up six litres at one time. (B384.3.w3)
  • Elephants may dig, using trunks and tusks, holes in dry riverbeds to find water during the dry season. (B285.w3)
  • In general, elephants drink once daily. They sometimes drink as often as three times daily, and have also been recorded, in conditions with water freely available, to go three days between drinks. (B384.4.w4)
    • In arid areas elephants are known to drink as infrequently as every third day (in desert in Mali) or every fourth day (in Namibia's Skeleton Coast). (B384.4.w4)
    • Survival for fourteen days without drinking (when trapped in a fenced area) has been recorded. (B384.4.w4)
      • Most of the elephants broke out of the area after 14 days, and two of the remaining animals also escaped. Just two young (two- or three-year-old) elephants died, on days 15 and 17. (B451.6.w6)
  • Elephants draw water into the trunk to a level just distal to the internal nostrils, then roll the trunk under, place the trunk tip just inside the mouth and empty the water into the mouth. (B453.2.w2)
    • Calves drink from their mother using their mouth; the trunk is not involved. (B453.2.w2)
    • Calves can kneel and drink water using the mouth directly if required. (B453.2.w2)
    • Adults, if the trunk is injured or paralysed, may wade into water to enable them to drink directly using their mouth. (B453.2.w2)
  • An elephant may drink as much as 100 L (22 gallons) of water at one time and up to 50 gallons (for a large bull) in a day. (B453.2.w2)
  • A single trunkful of water may be 4.0 - 10.0 L. (B453.2.w2)
  • Fresh flowing water is preferred for drinking. Foul water is only used if clean water is not available, e.g. in drought conditions. (B453.2.w2)
  • In drought, elephants dig holes in the dry sandy river beds to reach water, drinking as the holes fill. (B453.2.w2)
  • When arriving at clean, fresh water, first the elephants drink, with the lead cow entering the water first, with her calves, then the others drinking on either side. Afterwards, they bathe. (B453.9.w9)
  • In arid areas, elephants may not drink for several days. (B451.6.w6)
  • In a study in Uganda, elephants drank about 1.3 times a day, including seven of 15 days when they drank once, three days when they did not drink, and at many as three times a day on three days. (B451.6.w6)
  • Elephants have been seen to drink from a muddy wallow despite the presence of clean lake water just metres away. (B451.6.w6)
  • About four litres of water at a time is drawn up into the trunk (raising the water to a height of about two metres); the elephant then squirts the water into its throat. (B387.w4)
  • Water holes, dug using the feet and trunk, may require hours of digging in bad droughts. (B387.w4)
  • Difficult or dangerous journeys may be required to reach water in some areas, e.g. an 18 km journey in one area of central Tanzania. Elephants on the Galana routinely drink at night in the dry season. (B387.w4)

Salt licks:

  • Dry salt may be loosened using the forefoot and tusk, then small quantities are sucked up into the trunk and blown into the mouth. (B453.2.w2)
  • At boggy salt licks, the salty soil may be dug using the tusks, stirred into the water then drunk. (B453.2.w2)

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Authors & Referees

Authors Dr Debra Bourne MA VetMB PhD MRCVS (V.w5)
Referee Susan K. Mikota DVM (V.w72)

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