Skip to main content
sdzglibrarybanner San Diego Zoo Global Library

African Elephants (Loxodonta africana and L. cyclotis) Fact Sheet: Behavior & Ecology

Activity Cycle

Active day and night

  • Feeding accounts for most activity
    • Elephants feed an average of 16 hours/day
      • Forest elephants are browser-frugivores
      • Bush elephants are grazer-browsers
    • Peak feeding
      • Morning, afternoon, and around midnight (Estes 1991)
  • Sleep
    • Slumber 4-5 hours out of every 24 (Estes 1993)
      • Not always in a single, continuous session (Eltringham 1982)
    • Sleep often occurs 03:00-07:00 (Eltringham 1982)
    • Sleeping and waking is synchronized within the herd
  • Rest
    • Occurst in early afternoon
  • Drink and bathe daily, typically
    • May go several days without drinking

Home Range

Home range size

  • Variable
    • Range: 6 to 580 square miles
  • Factors influencing size
    • Quantity and quality of food available
    • Age and sex of elephants within the region
      • Required range area is difference for bulls and by cows with their young

Range Overlap

  • Group ranges do overlap (Shoshani 1992)

Social Groups

Social animals

  • Matriarchal social structure
    • Social groups consist of females (cows) and their offspring
  • Group composition
    • Often a single female with her offspring
    • May include a matriarch, her sisters, and their offspring
      • When groups get too big, “bond groups” split off but maintain a loose association
    • Savannah/bush elephants
      • Extended family groups
      • Members number from 4-14
    • Forest elephants
      • Nuclear family groups
      • Members number from 2-4
  • Males (bulls)
    • Leave the family group in their teens
    • Often solitary
      • Individuals wander alone or form small dynamic groups
        • Savannah/bush elephants form transient associations while forest elephants are more solitary

Social organization

  • Cows form complex social bonds
    • Individuals may form bonds with dozens of clan members and hundreds of acquaintances
  • Social hierarchy
    • Typically determined by "seniority"
      • In a group, the highest ranked elephant is the "tallest"
      • Smaller animals flatten ears and keep head lowered, moving backward and sideways to demonstrate their submission

Territorial Behavior

No evidence of territoriality (Shoshani 1992)

Social Interactions

Aggression

  • High intensity aggression is rare
    • Most interactions between mature bulls is low key
  • Threat behaviors
    • Aggressor turns toward adversary and spreads ears, standing as tall as possible
      • Head nodding, jerking, and shaking, are part of most threat displays
      • Forward trunk swish, with trumpeting or air blast is a threat
  • Fight behavior
    • Consists of trunk-wrestling, pushing, and tusking

 

Play

  • Participants
    • Calves often play
      • Male calves are the most likely to leave mothers to play
    • Older females also play
  • Forms of play
    • Lots of head sparring, mounting, charging, shoving, and chasing
    • Females chase and play running games; may also “attack” imaginary enemies

Communication

Tactile

  • Family members communicate through touch
    • May rub with a foot or slap with the trunk, often while standing
    • Uses of the trunk
      • Trunk used in greeting
        • May be held out to an approaching elephant as a greeting
        • A lower-ranking animal will insert its trunk tip into the other’s mouth
      • Other uses of the trunk
        • An individual will caress another
        • Mother may guide her calf by gripping its tail with her trunk
        • Two individuals may intertwine trunks
        • Trunk used to check reproductive status

Vocalization

  • Click here for audio of the African Elephant. Provided by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Macaulay Library.
  • Sound diversity
    • 4 different sounds are produced
      • Each is distinguished by gradations in pitch, duration, and volume
    • Rumbling
      • Frequencies variable; most are below human hearing
      • Functions
        • Important to sexual behavior; imparts distance information
          • Louder sounds may carry over several kilometers
        • A signal to more, or a warning
        • Softer rumbles may promote group cohesion
          • Quiet, though audible calls, heard during feeding events
        • Social greeting
          • Rumble or growl may be given as a greeting
        • Elevated, more bellowing rumbles given when in fear or pain
    • Trumpeting
      • Blowing through nostrils
      • Indicates excitement
    • Squealing
      • Juvenile distress call
    • Screaming
      • Adult distress call
      • Often in conjunction with trumpeting
      • Possibly meant to to intimidate another
  • Infrasonic communication
    • Discovered by Katherine Payne, based on observations of elephants raised under managed care made in 1984
  • Species specific characteristics
    • Savannah/bush elephants vocalize at 14-24 hertz
    • Forest elephants vocalize around 5 hertz

Olfaction/Scent Marking

  • Scent glands
    • Temporal gland secretions "musky"
      • Secretions is under autonomic control
      • Produced when an individual is excited or anxious

Locomotion

Quadrupedal

  • Walk and run
    • A single, ambling gait
      • Have difficulty crossing some trenches
        • Can not leap
        • Generally unable to cross a gap of c. 2.1 m (7 ft)
    • Speed of movement
      • Typically walk
        • Move at 6-8 km/hr (3.7- 5 mi/hr)
          • 9.7-12.9 km/hr (6 to 8 mph) is attainable by increasing the length of the stride
      • Top speed
        • 40 km/hr (25mph)
  • Swim (from Caloi 1992)
    • Proficient
    • May stay afloat for up to six hours at a time
    • Known to cover distances of 48.3 km (30 mi) at a stretch
    • Swim at a rate of 2 km/hr (1.2 mi/hr)

Interspecies Interactions

Herbivore competitors

  • Coexist with 3 other large mammal species (Eltringham,1982)
    • Buffalo (Syncerus), bush pig (Potamochoerus), bushbuck (Tragelaphus scriptus)
  • Elephants typically ignore other herbivores
    • Such as antelopes, warthogs and zebras

Carnivore predators

  • Elephants seek out lions in their vicinity to chase them away

Elephants as "keystone" species

  • Elephants impact on animals and plants
    • Elephants may stop the progression of grassland to forest or shrub lands
      • Grasses support grazing ungulates which are in turn food for carnivores
    • Elephants maintain trails used by all species
    • Elephants keep down vegetation around water holes
      • Process creates safe drinking spots for all species

Elephant Mud Bath

an African elephant calf in mud

Elephant calf playing in the mud.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Global. All rights reserved.

Page Citations

Caloi (1992)
Estes (1991)
Estes (1993)
Eltringham (1982)
Moss (2000)

SDZG Library Links