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BEHAVIOUR  - Editorial Comment

Editorial Comment

ACTIVITY PATTERNS: Elephants can swim well, but in water which is sufficiently shallow they will simply walk along the bottom, holding their trunks up into the air to breath. Elephants use their tusks of digging, feeding and marking as well as for fighting. Elephants' trunks have many different functions including breathing, feeding, sucking up water, mud or dust, picking up, holding and throwing items, gathering olfactory and tactile information, visual and tactile communication.

SELF-GROOMING: Elephants commonly bathe after drinking and may submerge fully during this. Females also bathe their calves. Other grooming activities include squirting mud or dust over the body (often while still wet from bathing in water), and scratching or rubbing on trees, rocks or termite mounds. These activities may be important in maintaining skin condition and for temperature regulation.

CIRCADIAN RHYTHM: Elephants are active both day and night, although they usually show a period of inactivity in the heat of the day. Sleeping lying down usually occurs during the night hours. Feeding rates may vary between different times of the day.

SPEED OF MOVEMENT: Average speed of movement while browsing may be only about 0.5 km/hr but more purposeful walking may be at 3.0 - 4.0 km per hour, 10 km/hr for fast walking and possibly 30 - 40 kph for a short time when charging. 


(Editorial Overview Text Replicated on Overall Species page - Loxodonta cyclotis - Forest Elephant)

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Activity Patterns

Source Information [Detailed data is from Loxodonta spp. but not necessarily Loxodonta cyclotis; until very recently this was considered as a subspecies of Loxodonta africana - African Elephant]:
  • Activity patterns vary between places and may be affected by hunting. In undisturbed areas, elephants may lie down at sleep at noon in relatively exposed places, while where they are heavily hunted they may remain in thick vegetation most of the day, only feeding in more open areas at night. (B387.w4)
  • Tusks are used for "fighting, digging, feeding and marking." (B147)
  • As well as African elephants pushing trees over for food, bulls may knock trees down in response to excitement/social pressures. (B147)
  • Habitats may be damaged where elephant populations are growing and are artificially prevented from migrating or dispersing. (B147)

Trunk and tool use:

  • The projections on the tip of the trunk are used to pick up, manipulate and examine objects. (B147)
  • African elephants sometimes use objects as tools, handing them with their trunks, and also throwing them. (B147)
  • At rest, the trunk hangs relaxed down from the head. In an alarmed elephant it is raised in an upward curve over the head, and it is also held up when signalling aggression, but in a real charge it is usually held down and rolled slightly under, the tip facing backwards. (B453.1.w1)
  • The trunk has many different functions, including breathing, sucking up water, picking up and holding items, assisting the calf, courtship, signalling and in social tactile interactions. (B384.3.w3)
  • Elephants can use their trunks to throw stones, accurately. (B384.3.w3)
  • When walking under water, or swimming, the trunk is held up with the tip above the water surface. (B453.1.w1)
  • The trunk may be used in combination with the tusks for manipulating objects. (B453.1.w1)
  • Very young calves may be carried using the trunk and tusks. (B453.1.w1)
  • The trunk is used to:
    • Pick up food. (B451.1.w1)
    • For comfort movements, such as scratching an itch. (B451.1.w1)
    • To caress calves, and during courtship. (B451.1.w1)
    • For detecting scents, both close and on the air. (B451.1.w1)
    • For sucking up water for drinking; (B451.1.w1)
    • For sucking up mud or dust to squirt over the body. (B451.1.w1)
    • For indicating aggression. (B451.1.w1)
    • For throwing objects. (B451.1.w1)
    • In attack (lashing with the trunk, possibly picking someone up and throwing them). (B451.1.w1)
    • In wrestling matches between young males. (B451.1.w1)
  • The trunk is used for drinking, food gathering, a sensory organ for feeling and smelling objects, to slap calves, as a weapon against enemies, for spraying the body with inhaled water, regurgitated liquid, mud or dust and possibly in signalling. (B387.w4)
  • Both African and Asian elephants use tools, both in a broad sense ("the external employment of an unattached environmental object to alter more efficiently the for, position, or condition of another object, another organism, or the user itself when the user holds or carried the tool during or just prior to use and is responsible for the proper and effective orientation of the tool" and in a narrower sense: "use of a physical implement (such as a hammer, stick or stone) manipulated by the hand (or other manipulative organ) to attain a particular goal." Uses of tools reported for African elephants include: (J334.46.w1)
    • Probing the temporal gland with a stick; (fits the narrow definition of tool use)
    • Scratching or cleaning the ear orifice with vegetation such as grass; (fits the narrow definition of tool use)
    • Scratching the body (presumably to relieve an itch), using a stick held in the trunk; (fits the narrow definition of tool use); (fits the narrow definition of tool use)
    • Wiping cuts with a clump of grass held in the trunk; (fits the narrow definition of tool use)
    • Reaching towards food which is out of reach using a twig held in the trunk; (fits the narrow definition of tool use)
    • Hitting a human with a stick held in the trunk; (fits the narrow definition of tool use)
    • Throwing objects (often very accurately), using the trunk or forefoot, at humans, vehicles, other animals and other large, novel objects; (fits the narrow definition of tool use)
    • Waving or brandishing branches at a vehicle (presumably to repel it); (fits the narrow definition of tool use)
    • Large bulls pushing or throwing younger bulls agains fences to break the fence so th elephants can pass through;
    • Repeatedly piling branches onto a road made for travel to cull elephants;
    • Pushing a large tree over onto a fence, or piling branches onto a fence, causing the fence to sag or break, making it passable for elephants;
    • Having dug a water hole during the dry season, plug the hole with chewed bark, presumably to stop other animals using the hole;
    • Stuff vegetation into the mouth of a familiar dead elephant (presumably to revive her);
    • Placing hay or grass on the back to keep away biting flies;
    • Use vegetation or dirt to bury dead elephants, dead or immobile humans and other dead animals;
    • Plaster mud onto a wound of a dead elephant;
    • Using the trunk to apply water, mud, vegetation and dust to the body by squirting, blowing or throwing, apparently to provide protection for sun, heat, and/or ectoparasites;
    • Regurgitate water into the trunk then spray this onto the ears for cooling.



  • Elephants seek shade in the heat of the day. When this is scarce, they crowd into whatever shade is available. (B384.6.w6)
  • Where very little shade is available, a family group may crowd under a single available shade tree. (B453.3.w3)
  • Elephants can swim or walk along under water with only the trunk tip in the air for distances of several kilometers. (B147)
  • African elephants are good swimmers. If the water is sufficiently shallow, however, they walk across, the trunk held up periscope-fashion and calves swimming alongside. (B453.9.w9)
  • Elephants swim well, even swimming in the ocean. (B387.w4)
  • Two young bull elephants swam across Lake Kariba, a distance of 35 km, in 30 hours. (B384.15.w15)

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Source Information [Detailed data is from Loxodonta spp. but not necessarily Loxodonta cyclotis; until very recently this was considered as a subspecies of Loxodonta africana - African Elephant]:
  • Water sucked up with the trunk is sprayed over the body to cool the elephant. (B147)
  • At water, as well as drinking, elephants may bathe, wallow or submerge so only the tip of the trunk is above the water. (B147)
  • As drinking finishes, the elephants start to bathe, some moving into deeper water, others moving out along the shallows. Young calves are bathed and older calves splash and play. Following bathing, while the skin is still wet, the elephants either squirt mud over themselves from a mud wallow, or spray fine dust over the whole body; grass may also be placed onto the head and back. With either the mud or powder dust, the elephant acquires an earth pack over the skin. (B453.9.w9)
    • This may be more important for skin condition in savannah than in heavily forested or montane areas. (B453.9.w9)
    • Dried thick earth packs may later become apparently irritating and be scratched off against trees, rocks or termite mounts. (B453.9.w9)
  • Elephants often thrash around and completely submerge while bathing. (B451.6.w6)
  • After drinking, elephants often spray mud on the body, possibly to lose heat by evaporation. (B451.6.w6)
  • Elephants may cover themselves with dust, possibly to increase shedding of skin flakes. (B451.6.w6)
  • Bathing and mud wallowing routines vary; elephants mud bathe and dust bathe more obviously in the dry season. (B387.w4)
  • Elephants scratch and rub themselves after sleeping and after bathing and wallowing. (B387.w4)

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Circadian Rhythm

Source Information [Detailed data is from Loxodonta spp. but not necessarily Loxodonta cyclotis; until very recently this was considered as a subspecies of Loxodonta africana - African Elephant]:
  • Elephants are active both at night and during the day; they are least active during the hottest part of the day. (B147)
  • A preliminary GPS tracking study of a female forest elephant in Central Africa revealed a marked diurnal activity pattern, with the highest activity level at 12.00 to 21.00 hrs, peaking at 15.00 hrs and with low activity 0000 to 0900, lowest at 06.00; activity levels were positively correlated with environmental temperature. Forest elephants, in continuous shade, may not need to reduce activity in the time around noon when activity is reduced in savanna elephants, and therefore may have less pressure to continue high activity levels into the night. (J183.39.w1)
  • Few studies have involved observation of elephants at night as well as during the day. (B451.6.w6)
    • A study in Uganda, watching elephants on nights around the full moon as well as during the daytime, found that there were three main feeding bouts per group of elephants (morning, afternoon and night), with definite rest period in each family, during which no member of the family was feeding. Sleeping occurred mainly in the "small hours", usually between 0300 and 0700. (B451.6.w6)
  • Drinking routines may vary. (B387.w4)
  • In the dry season, more of the day is spent resting rather than active, and if possible in a cool or shady place. (B387.w4)
  • In the rains, when food is abundant, elephants may feed continuously, while more searching for food may be seen if food is scattered or scarce. (B387.w4)


  • Elephants spend a large percentage of their time feeding. A study in Uganda in which elephants were followed at night (near full moon) as well as during the day found that about 75% of time was spent feeding, although not continuously. (B451.6.w6)
  • Feeding routines may vary, but a peak at 2230-0030, prior to the night's sleep, is usual. (B387.w4)
  • Feeding rates, measured as number of trunkfuls of food eaten per unit time (usually per minute), may vary considerably at different times of day. (B451.5.w5)


  • Elephants sleep lying down or standing, leaning against one another or against trees. (B147)
  • Most elephants sleep soundly, lying down with the trunk curled, for several hours each day; they can also rest standing up. (B10.49.w21)
  • Once lying, on one side, in order to stand the elephant rocks to reach an upright position. It rises onto the front feet first. (B384.3.w3)
  • Elephants sleep after midnight or at noon. (B147)
  • Elephants generally rest during the heat of the day, in shaded areas; they may not lie down at this time. (B453.9.w9)
    • Elephants do sometimes lie down during the day; a glade was found on one occasion where it was possible to feel the warmth where elephants had been lying down until disturbed by the approach of the humans. (B453.9.w9)
  • Studies of three African elephants in a zoo found that they generally slept lying down between 2100 and 2300 daily, and again from 3.00 to 5.00 pm [am?] to give a total of about four hours ten minutes lying down per night. (B453.9.w9)
  • In a study in Uganda, elephants were found to lie down and sleep at night, but rarely lay down during the day. It was noted that very large animals appeared reluctant to lie down and might sleep standing up. (B451.6.w6)
    • Sleeping appeared to be synchronised within a family group, even when not in sight of one another, with all individuals lying down or standing still to sleep within a few minutes of one another. (B451.6.w6)
    • Sleeping was preceded by considerable slowing of feeding. (B451.6.w6)
    • Night sleep lasted one to four hours, not always continuous, with animals waking and sometimes moving a few metres then settling again. (B451.6.w6)
    • Waking was also synchronised. (B451.6.w6)
  • In addition to night time sleep, daytime resting occurs also, generally in early afternoon, sometimes remaining standing, but some do lie down in the shade. (B451.6.w6)
    • A systematic study in Uganda showed resting at any time during daylight, but with an increase during the morning to a peak at about 1300 - 1400 hours. (B451.6.w6)
  • Elephants sleep usually after midnight; they may sleep for several hours, either standing, in which case they lean against one another or a tree, or lying on one side. (B387.w4)
    • Before lying down, elephants commonly use their feet to scuff the ground. (B387.w4)

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Speed of Movement

Source Information [Detailed data is from Loxodonta spp. but not necessarily Loxodonta cyclotis; until very recently this was considered as a subspecies of Loxodonta africana - African Elephant]:
  • Normal fast movement on land is 10 to 16 km/hr; 35-40 km/hr may be reached when an individual charges. (B147)
  • Elephants often walk slowly, but can walk faster, at 3.0 - 4.0 km/hr (2.0 - 2.5 mph). (B285.w3)
  • Charging elephants are said to reach 40 km/hr (25 mph). (B285.w3)
  • Elephants walk at about 10 kph and trot at 20 to 24 kph; they can charge at 30 kph, possibly faster (towards 40 kph). (B384.3.w3)
  • Fast speeds may be maintained for only about 450 to 550 m at a time. (B384.3.w3)
  • If frightened, African elephants may move up to 145 km during the daylight hours on a single day. (B384.3.w3)
  • Average speed of movement of elephants followed in Uganda was 0.5 km/hr, due to frequent stops to browse. Purposeful walking, along game trails and without stopping to feed, took up about 9.3% of daily time, usually shortly after dusk. (B451.6.w6)

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Source Information
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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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