Living Organisms / Animalia / Craniata / Mammalia / Proboscidea / Elephantidae / Elephas / Species:

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BEHAVIOUR  - Editorial Comment

Editorial Comment

ACTIVITY PATTERNS: The basic gait of elephants is the pace or rack: sequence of movement left hind, left fore, right hind, right fore. Walking slowly, three feet are on the ground most of the time. At faster paces, more of the time is spent with only two feet on the ground. Asian elephants can negotiate quite steep terrain. In such circumstances they may occasionally use the elbows of the forelimbs while climbing and drop to the knees on the hind legs while descending. Asian elephants swim readily and can swim for long distances (e.g. 48 km); young calves may scramble onto their mothers' shoulders while swimming. 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. The trunk is often in motion, apparently sampling the olfactory environment. Adult elephants may rest while standing, often leaning on a rock or tree, and rarely sleep lying down during the day; infants and juveniles often lie down to sleep.

SELF-GROOMING: Elephants usually bathe daily, sucking water into the trunk then spraying it on the body; the order in which different parts of the body is sprayed varies between individuals. Young elephants in particular, but also adults, may immerse themselves in water, even lie down and roll in shallow water. Mud bathing, which occurs independently of water bathing, may involve wallowing in a mud hole; more often mud is picked up with the trunk and thrown on the body. Soil bathing may or may not occur after water bathing and involves loosening the soil with the forefeet, picking it up with the trunk then throwing it over the body. After any of these types of bathing the elephant often rubs on trees or rocks. The trunk may also be used for rubbing, the tail is used to rub the perineal area and one foot may be rubbed using the foot on the other side.

CIRCADIAN RHYTHM: Asian elephants generally rest in the middle of the day and show a period of sleep (standing up and lying down in the middle of the night, usually during the period 4 am to 7 am. They are active in the morning, evening and night. There are generally two main peaks of activity during the day, one in the morning and another in late afternoon, although there are variations in this pattern.

SPEED OF MOVEMENT: Elephants may walk at about 3.0 - 4.0 km per hour, or much slower (e.g. 10 metres to 1.5 km per hour) while feeding. Females with young move more slowly than do males. Charging elephants are said to reach 40 km/hr (25 mph)

NAVIGATION: [There is no information available regarding how elephants navigate]

(Editorial Overview Text Replicated on Overall Species page - Asian Elephant - Elephas maximus)

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Activity Patterns

Source Information Activity Patterns
  • In a three-year study of populations in southeastern Ceylon [Sri Lanka], 1967 to 1969, activity patterns of solitary males and male groups generally involved feeding bouts of variable length (which included some locomotion), alternating with periods of walking without feeding, generally for only a short period. Female herds showed similar patterns and generally high synchronicity between individuals within a group. (J325.125.w1)
  • In a three-year study of populations in southeastern Ceylon [Sri Lanka], 1967 to 1969, 91.1% of the time was spent in feeding (with or without movement) and a further 5.4% of the time was spent in locomotion without feeding, with the rest of the time divided between resting (1.4%), bathing (1.8%), drinking(0.1%) and other activities (0.2%). For a smaller sample of solitary males, 87.1% of time was spent feeding, 10.1% walking, 2.0% resting, 0.9% on other activities. (J325.125.w1)
  • Individuals may at times spend large proportions of their time interacting with other elephants. (J325.125.w1)
  • For both males and females, peaks of feeding occurred at about the same time as general activity level peaks. (J325.125.w1)
  • Peaks of feeding on grasses occur earlier in the day than do peaks of feeding on shrubs, probably due to elephants being more likely to feed in open areas in the cooler morning hours rather than the middle of the day. (J325.125.w1)
  • Another study of elephants in Sri Lanka found that about 75% of the daytime was occupied by feeding. (B451.6.w6)

Locomotion on land

  • The basic gait, at whatever speed, is the pace or rack: sequence of movement left hind, left fore, right hind, right fore. (J325.125.w1)
  • During slow walking, for most of the time, three feet are on the ground most of the time, with one foot off the ground for short periods and two feet off the ground only for a very short time. The body and head remain fairly stable. (J325.125.w1)
  • With faster walking, the forefoot is raised as the hindfoot on the same side is being brought forwards, thus there are longer periods with only two feet in contact with the ground. The body shows a definite rolling motion, with the centre of gravity shifting from one side to the other, and there is a definite bobbing of the head. As the elephant moves faster, the body and head movements become more pronounced. (J325.125.w1)
  • The tail and trunk positions are quite variable at both slow and fast walk. (J325.125.w1)
  • If feeding while walking, the pace is generally slow, while it is usually faster if walking without feeding. (J325.125.w1)
  • When running, the back of adults and juveniles appears more arched. (J325.125.w1)
    • Running occurs in adults during charging (tail arched upwards and trunk curled under the chin) or flight (tail held arched upwards and trunk up in a sigmoid posture). (J325.125.w1)
    • Running occurs in infants and juveniles while playing and chasing one another. The tail is usually arched up and the trunk is held upward. (J325.125.w1)
  • Asian elephants can negotiate quite steep terrain. In such circumstances they may occasionally use the elbows of the forelimbs while climbing and drop to the knees on the hind legs while descending. (J325.125.w1)
  • Trails are formed where elephants move to and from particular points in their range. In grassy areas these appear as ground without vegetation and sometime even cut five to seven centimetres into the surface. In forests the ground vegetation on trails is disturbed or absent and there is also a lack of undergrowth around the trail (presumably due to feeding by elephants and other herbivores moving along the trails). There are occasional open areas of about 50 to 100 square metres along trails, lacking ground vegetation and shrubs. These often occur at the intersections of two trails. They appear to be used as resting areas. (J325.125.w1)
  • Elephants travel long distances to reach food, water, shade and minerals. (J359.7.w3)
  • Elephants walk at 4 km/hr, but can move faster: 25 lm/hr for short distances; speeds of 30 - 40 kg have been reported. (J359.7.w3)


  • Asian elephants readily swim. (J325.125.w1)
  • Close observation of three elephants while they were swimming showed that the body moved in a rolling motion similar to that seen when the elephant walks fast or runs; the body was submerged and only the top of the head and the tip of the trunk were above water. (J325.125.w1)
  • Female Asian elephants were observed to swim the 50 m distance between two islands in three minutes. (J325.125.w1)
  • Asian elephants can swim well; they have been reported to be able to swim for a distance as long as 48 km at speeds up to 2.7 km/hr. (B147)
  • Asian elephants have been recorded swimming for as long as six hours. (B387.w4)
  • Asian elephant calves of a few months old have been reported to scramble onto their mothers' shoulders while swimming. (B384.5.w5)
  • Elephants can swim long distances. (J359.7.w3)


  • Most elephants sleep soundly, lying down with the trunk curled, for several hours each day; they can also rest standing up. (B10.49.w21)
  • In a three-year study of two populations in southeastern Ceylon [Sri Lanka], 1967 to 1969, infants and juveniles were frequently observed lying down to sleep for a short period, but lying down was seen only infrequently in large juveniles and in adults. (J325.125.w1)
  • To sit or lie down, the elephant, with stiffly extended forelegs, sinks down on the hind quarters, then flexes the forelegs, so the elephant is resting on its belly and elbows, then lies on one side. The trunk may be curled inward while the elephant is lying but this is not always the case. (J325.125.w1)
  • Adult elephants may rest while standing, with or without leaning on a tree or rock. (J325.125.w1)
  • If free-standing, the elephant generally has all four feet and the tip of the trunk on the ground. One leg is lifted slightly occasionally. and there may be slight bobbing of the head and body (J325.125.w1)
  • If resting while in contact with a tree or rock, the elephant may lean its back or hind quarters against the solid object, or may extend the trunk or its chin over a rock or a low branch. (J325.125.w1)
  • Elephants may sit, resting on the elbows, or even lie down, for a few minutes while bathing and drinking. (J325.125.w1)

Trunk and tool use

  • Asian elephants make use of tools, such as sticks and branches held with the trunk and used to repel insects or to scratch the body, and objects thrown apparently to repel humans/other animals. (B147)
  • Elephants can use their trunks to throw stones, accurately. (B384.3.w3)
  • 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)
  • Asian elephants, with a single, dorsal, projection on the end of the trunk, bend the trunk round an object to grasp it; they can also grasp an item between the dorsal projection ("finger") and the lower lip. (B384.3.w3)
  • 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)
  • 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 Asian elephants include: (J334.46.w1)
    • Ripping up a fence stake using the trunk, breaking part off with a foot then using the remainder to dislodge a leech from the axilla; (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)
    • Waving branches with the apparent object of chasing away flies; (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)
    • Using sticks to prevent logs rolling out of control (working elephants; fits the narrow definition of tool use)
    • Placing hay or grass on the back to keep away biting flies
    • 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.


  • Asian (and African) elephants, both captive and wild, have been seen throwing objects such as sticks and stones at humans and other animals, and using sticks to scratch themselves. (J334.62.w1)
  • Both wild and captive Asian elephants will use branches as fly switches, and will modify these if necessary prior to use. (J334.48.w1, J334.62.w1)
    • Asian elephants used to take tourists for rides were found to use branches given to them, and to grab branches during rides, to use as switches to repel flies. Switching was shown to be associated with the level of harassment of the elephants by flies, and was significantly effective in reducing fly numbers (by 43%). Elephants sometimes modified the branches, either shortening the branch or removing side twigs. (J334.48.w1)
    • Wild Asian elephants in Nagarhole National Park, India, were observed to use branches for switching. They used branches , from a variety of tree species, but also grasses, and bamboo, of about 0.75 - 2.0 m long, swinging the branch in a pendulous motion to hit the body one to six times, sometimes alternating between sides, other times switching one side or the belly. The branch would then be held and used again, eaten, or dropped. (J334.62.w1)
    • Captive, extensively managed elephants in the Nagarhole National Park, India, when provided with branches which were too long or too bushy for effective use as a fly switch, usually modified the branch, then used the modified section to switch with. Either a side branch was broken off, or the branch was broken into two and the distal end used for switching. An 18-month-old calf was observed to remove a side branch from a branch given to his mother, and used this to switch with. A nine-month-old female calf showed movements indicating attempts to copy the fly-switching behaviour of adults, but apparently lacked the coordination necessary to effectively carry out this behaviour. (J334.62.w1)
    • Elephant will use twigs to scratch themselves. (J359.7.w3)
    • Elephants prepare small sticks by shortening and sharpening branches using their trunk "hand", forefeet and molars; the stick is used to scratch the temporal gland. (P501.2001.w9)
    • A study detected 40 types of tool use in elephants, including 23 which could be considered tool use in a narrow sense: manipulation of a physical implement to attain a particular goal, while the rest fit a broader sense of tool use. Tool use was noted in the contexts body care, feeding and drinking (e.g. in food preparation), social behaviour and rest and sleep. (P501.2001.w9)
Tree gashing
  • Trees may be found with tusk gashes but with no signs of being used for rubbing (see below, self-grooming). It has been suggested that this is a type of marking; the odour of elephant is certainly found on trees which have been marked in this way, but it is not known now long the scent lingers. (J325.125.w1)

Urination and defecation

  • Urination and defecation generally occur with the elephant in a normal resting position; young elephants sometimes squat to urinate and females often spread the hind legs. The tail is generally held raised horizontal during defecation. (J325.125.w1)
  • In males, the penis is partially erected for urination, such that the glans points backwards. The clitoris of females may also be partially erected during urination. (J325.125.w1)
  • Elephants usually urinate after defecating; they may also urinate at other times. (J325.125.w1)


  • The trunk is in motion most of the time while elephants are walking and often while they are standing. It is often extended ahead of the elephant, towards the ground; it appears that the elephant is sampling the olfactory environment as it travels. The trunk is specifically extended towards objects such as faeces from another elephant, or human footprints. (J325.125.w1)
  • Often while travelling, the elephant stops, raising the trunk outwards and from side to side, apparently sampling for scents on the wind, and at the same time often extending the ears. (J325.125.w1)
  • Small objects will often be picked up; vegetation may be placed in the mouth then discarded. (J325.125.w1)

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Source Information

Water bathing:

  • Elephants generally bathe daily. (J325.125.w1)
  • Water is sucked into the trunk, then sprayed onto the body, with the trunk being swung first slightly forwards then backwards laterally, ventrally or vertically, the water being released in a spray over the body. (J325.125.w1)
    • There is no obvious order in which the different parts of the body are sprayed; this varies between elephants, e.g. sides, ventral area and dorsal area in rotation in one animal, one side, then the other then the ventral abdomen in another. (J325.125.w1)
  • Young elephants tend to completely immerse themselves, often lying down and rolling in shallow water; this behaviour is seen infrequently in adults. (J325.125.w1)
  • Elephants kept away from water have been seen to place the trunk tip into their mouth, then withdraw it and spray liquid over the head and back. (B212.w5, B386.5.w5, J325.125.w1)

Mud and dust bathing:

  • Mud bathing generally involves collecting a bolus of mud with the trunk then throwing it onto the body; occasionally a solitary male was seen to wallow in or roll in a mud hole. (J325.125.w1)
    • Mud bathing is carried out independently of water bathing. (J325.125.w1)
  • For dust or soil bathing, the forefeet are used to loosen the soil, which is then collected in the terminal trunk and thrown over the body. (J325.125.w1)
    • Sometime, but not always, soil bathing occurs after water bathing. (J325.125.w1)

Rubbing on trees and rocks:

  • This is often seen following water, mud or soil bathing; the elephant may water bath, then dust bathe a few minutes later, then rub. (J325.125.w1)
  • The elephant rubs its body against a tree or rock. Often, first the forehead and the base of the trunk re rubbed, followed by the sides of the head and the neck, then the sides of the body, finally the rump and perineal area. The chin is often rubbed if there is a low branch on the tree used for rubbing, or if a rock is used. Some trees are used regularly; the trunk often becomes covered with a layer of mud and the bark may become smooth; there may be long gashes in the bark where the tushes or tusks have been rubbed. (J325.125.w1)


  • The trunk is often used to rub parts of the body. Curled, it is used to rub the neck, throat, chin, behind the ears and around the eyes. The tail is used to rub the perineal area and between the legs around the external genitalia. A foot may be used to rub the foot on the other side. (J325.125.w1)

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Circadian Rhythm

Source Information
  • Asian elephants generally rest in the middle of the day and move and feed during the morning, evening and night. (B147)
  • Peaks of activity for bulls at about 8 am and then 4 pm to 5 pm, and for cows at about 10 am and 3.30 pm to 6 pm, sometimes also a smaller peak at midday to 1 pm or 2 pm, were noted in Sri Lanka. (B384.4.w4)
  • Wild elephants generally sleep soundly lying down for only about half an hour, preceded by dozing standing up. Sleeping generally occurs between 4 am and 7 am. In early afternoon, adults may doze while calves sleep. Zoo elephants may sleep for two to four hours during the night. (B384.4.w4)
  • In a three-year study of two populations in southeastern Ceylon [Sri Lanka], 1967 to 1969, in which most observations were confined to daylight hours (0600 to 1815 or 1830 hrs) the following patterns were noted: (J325.125.w1)
    • Males in Gal Oya and Ruhunu National Parks generally showed an activity peak at about 0800, with a decrease in activity around noon and a second activity peak between 1600 and 1700 hours. (J325.125.w1)
    • Females in Gal Oya National Park generally showed a peak around 1000 hours, a second small peak between 1300 and 1400 and a large activity peak between 1530 - 1800 hours. (J325.125.w1)
    • Females in Ruhunu National Park were observed not to have morning or early afternoon peaks, but rather an activity peak around dusk. (J325.125.w1)
      • It was suggested that this was related to disturbance from tourist vehicles in the park, with these females being lee tolerant of vehicles and humans than were the males. (J325.125.w1)
    • In the Lahugala Tank area, elephants started to emerge from the forest and be present in the tank from about 1700 or 1800, with numbers present then increasing to a peak at 1500 to 1600 hours. In March and December numbers then continued to increase until dusk, while in July, October and February numbers declines after 1700 hours. Limited nightime observations showed that numbers decreased more rapidly between 2000 hours and midnight, with few elephants left by 0200-000 hours. (J325.125.w1)
  • Asian elephants have two main feeding peaks per 24-hour period. (B147)
  • In summer, elephants rest for 2-4 hours during the daytime. (J359.7.w3)

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Speed of Movement

Source Information
  • 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)
  • The Asian elephant can reach speeds of 24 to 32 km/hr. (B384.3.w3)
  • To move rapidly, elephants keep the back rigid and the legs nearly straight. (B384.3.w3)
  • Elephants can move at various speeds, from very slow to quite rapid. (J325.125.w1)
  • In a three-year study of two populations in southeastern Ceylon [Sri Lanka], 1967 to 1969, movement rates while elephants were feeding ranged from 10 metres per hour to 1.5 km per hour. (J325.125.w1)
    • Females with young moved at a significantly slower rate than did males. (J325.125.w1)
    • There were no obvious correlations between the type of food and movement rates. (J325.125.w1)

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Source Information
  • [There is no information available regarding how elephants navigate]

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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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