Elephants, the world’s largest land mammals, live both in the wild and in captivity. In the US, for example, you can visit these magnificent beasts at the San Diego Zoo, Oregon Zoo, and many others.
If you ever visited elephant enclosures during winter, you probably know that captive elephants in zoos do not hibernate. Their enclosures are well-protected from the outside cold.
But do wild elephants hibernate when the winter months come upon them?
This is a great question that deserves a thorough answer. But the short answer is: no, elephants do not hibernate; neither in the wild nor in captivity.
Let’s take a deeper look into this question, explain the main reasons why elephants do not hibernate and examine if they migrate or estivate instead.
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Elephants Do Not Hibernate, Here’s Why
Hibernation is a state of deep sleep an animal enters to conserve energy and survive when food is scarce and the temperature is too low.
Most of the time, this happens during the winter months when there is no food around, so the animal decides to drop its body temperature, heart rate, and breathing rate to extremely low levels to conserve energy.
Elephants do not hibernate because they live in the wooded savannas, grasslands, and semi-desert areas. These are all places that do not have much snow or extremely cold temperatures so elephants do not need to hibernate.
There are three different species of elephants: the African bush elephant, the African forest elephant, and the Asian elephant.
The African bush elephant, also known as the African savanna elephant, is native to open and wooded savannas, some deserts, and forests of Sub-Saharan Africa, mostly in Southern and Eastern African countries. During winter, in most countries, temperatures there go between 68°F and 82°F.
The African forest elephant is native to the humid forests of West Africa and the Congo Basin. The climate there is warm and humid, with temperatures high throughout the year, ranging around 60 and 80°F.
The Asian elephant, sightly smaller than its African cousins, is native to tropical forests and grasslands of India and Southeast Asia. The climate there is warm throughout the year, with the lowest temperatures, usually in December, being around 59°F.
In some parts of Asia where elephants live, it can get cold and rainy. In Botswana, the African country with the largest wild elephant population in the world, the temperatures can drop into the low 40°F at night. These are cold winters, but not that extreme to require hibernation.
Elephants don’t seem to be bothered by such temperature changes.
These are huge animals, with the average elephant weighing between 5,000 to 14,000 lbs. Such size allows them to maintain fairly constant core body temperatures and retain body heat for extended amounts of time. This is known as gigantothermy.
Since they retain heat well and mostly live in pleasant temperatures, there is no valid reason for wild elephants to hibernate.
Captive elephants found in zoos might have a bigger issue with cold weather. In many zoos and elephant sanctuaries, elephants might get exposed to snow and very cold conditions.
And yet, elephants will not enter dormant states there either. Some elephants seem to enjoy colder weather, while others might get chilly faster.
Generally speaking, zookeepers and caregivers need to become concerned when temperatures reach low 40 degrees F. At such temperatures, elephants may get frostbite in some of their more vulnerable areas, like the trunk.
When temperatures drop, they provide the animals with warm blankets and heat their barns. And if there’s snow, elephants won’t remain always in their warm “houses”. Many will go out in the snow, explore, and play around. Elephants usually stay outside in these temperatures only for a brief period but seem to enjoy the experience of snow.
In The Wild, Instead Of Hibernation, Elephants Migrate
The Asian and African Elephants are partially migratory animals that might not go on migratory expeditions every year. These elephants will migrate due to seasonal changes, mostly in pursuit of food and water.
Elephants are highly mobile animals and can travel long distances.
African elephants can be seen moving over 60 miles in a season if the weather is too dry. Asian elephants usually migrate between 12 and 30 miles.
The African savannas, grasslands, and forests go through a dry season where the watering holes dry out. They are very important for elephants as they need about 15 and 25 gallons of water a day to survive and cool down.
That’s why, around June, African elephants will move toward more hospitable locations near rivers and other water sources. When the dry season ends around October, and the wet season starts, elephants will go back to their old habitats. This gives the vegetation time to regrow and regenerate.
In addition to that, elephants are pollinators and will distribute seeds in their dung while traveling.
Elephants might decide to migrate individually (individual family groups separate themselves from the larger herd), in groups (two to five family groups moving together), or in mass (many family groups decide to move as a huge herd, sometimes with over 500 animals).
A study from 2018 examined multiple groups of savanna elephants to determine if they migrated or not. And the findings were quite interesting.
Out of 139 savanna elephants from 8 different protected areas, only 25 migrated. The study discovered that only some individuals in an elephant population will migrate opportunistically, and not every year. Their migratory movement was in response to the seasonal rainfall.
The study gives amazing insights into the migratory behaviors of African elephants. However, more studies are required to make proper conclusions on this topic.
Asian elephants, on the other hand, might undertake migrations that require 150,000 people to be evacuated from their houses.
In 2021, 14 Asian elephants have been on the move for months, undertaking an extraordinary 300-mile journey that has seen them wander through fields, towns, and cities, eating millions of dollars worth of crops and damaging buildings.
Such long-distance migration never happened in the past half a century in Asia; the main reasons for their huge migration were thought to be habitat shrinkage, food shortage, population growth, opportunistic behavior, or straying off the herd’s leader.
Do Elephants Get Into Torpor?
No, elephants are animals that do not enter torpor to survive harsh conditions.
Torpor is a hibernation-like state of sleep where an animal lowers its body temperature, breathing rate, heart rate, and metabolic rate to survive the winter months.
Unlike hibernation, torpor is an involuntary state that an animal enters into, and lasts a lot shorter.
Animals that go into torpor are some species of birds (like hummingbirds), raccoons, skunks, some mice, and bats.
Do Elephants Estivate?
Aestivation or estivation is a state of sleep similar to hibernation that takes place during the hot and dry summer months. Estivation is characterized by a period of inactivity and a lowered metabolic rate.
Despite living in areas that can have extremely high summer temperatures, elephants do not estivate. They remain active throughout the year.
Animals that go into estivation are mollusks, crabs, crocodiles, some salamanders, mosquitoes, desert tortoises, the dwarf lemur, and some hedgehogs, but not elephants.
Read More: Do Kangaroos Enter Hibernation In Winter?
Final Thoughts – Do Elephants Hibernate?
Elephants are very gentle giant creatures living in Africa and Asia. They are warm-blooded mammals that do not hibernate or enter any other state of dormancy. Instead, they remain active and undertake long migrations to reach places with food and water.
Just like other animals, elephants neither get into torpor nor do they aestivate – they survive colder weather by migrating and staying active.
In case you live in Asia, make sure to purchase a house that is not on the migratory route of an elephant. Otherwise, you might get evacuated because of some astray animal.
If you were pondering on the question “do elephants hibernate”, we hope this article removed all doubts.
And if you enjoyed it, feel free to read another popular read on animal hibernation: Do wild turkeys hibernate in winter?