African elephants sleep only two hours a day

African elephants sleep only two hours a day

Bigger mammals generally need less sleep, and new research shows that African elephants ― the biggest land mammals of all ― need the least sleep at just two hours a day.

Elephants were known to sleep as long as six hours a day in captivity, but Paul Manger of the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, and colleagues wanted to know how long they slept in the wild. They fitted two free-roaming African elephant matriarchs in Chobe National Park, Botswana, with Actiwatch devices to track their activity and gyroscopes to track their sleeping position. The researchers reported their findings in PLOS ONE.

They found that the elephants slept an average of two hours out of every day, usually broken into several episodes, and regularly stayed awake 48 hours straight. At the other end of the spectrum, mountain beavers can sleep more than 14 hours a day.

Why does sleep time vary with size? “Larger animals need more food to keep their bodies fueled,” Manger explains. “The elephant, which can eat several hundred kilograms of low-quality food each day, devotes a lot of time to eating, leaving less time for sleep.”

Interestingly, the researchers also found that the elephants often slept standing up, lying down only every few nights. This could limit their potential for daily REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. In mammals, REM sleep occurs only when muscles are relaxed and, Manger notes, “When muscle tone is lost, it is very difficult to stand while asleep.”

This finding raises questions about the role of REM sleep, which is thought to be key to laying down memories in mammals. Other outliers for this sleep state include cetaceans, which never have REM sleep, and platypuses, which spend up to eight hours a day in REM sleep.

“This makes an all-encompassing relationship between REM sleep and memory consolidation rather difficult to support,” Manger says. “Do platypuses have the best memories of all mammals, elephants a sporadic memory, and cetaceans a terrible memory?”

The answer is certainly “no” for elephants. While it’s a stretch to say that they never forget, they do have excellent memories.

Citation: Gravett N, Bhagwandin A, Sutcliffe R, Landen K, Chase MJ, Lyamin OI, et al. (2017) Inactivity/sleep in two wild free-roaming African elephant matriarchs – Does large body size make elephants the shortest mammalian sleepers? PLoS ONE 12(3): e0171903. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0171903

Image Credit: jude, Flickr


Robin is a freelance science writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area, covering water, energy and the environment in the western US, and all things biology from biomechanics to behavior.

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