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

Update in Progress

Dear Readers,

This fact sheet, like an elephant, is aging gracefully. San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance is working to bring you an updated version of the African Elephants Fact Sheet with new science and conservation information. Thanks for your patience, as our tusks go to the ground and dig into this huge project. Please check back soon. SDZWA team members can email questions to

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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
    • Occurs 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


  • 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



  • 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



  • 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


  • 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



  • 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 Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

Page Citations

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

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