WATCH: Fitbits to track elephant sleep patterns - and the results are amazing

2017-03-02 13:01 - Louzel Lombard Steyn
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Cape Town - Fitbits are handy buggers... and in a modern world, we need them to regulate our very irregular and unnatural lifestyles.  

Often, for first time Fitbit users, the results and reflections on our daily lives are shocking. "I didn't realise I got this little good sleep before" and "I should really drink more water, regularly" are some of the revelations that I've heard from users. 

And it seems that the handy devices aren't only useful in determining human sleeping patterns. 

Working in the Chobe National Park in Botswana, Prof Paul Manger, from the School of Anatomical Sciences at Wits University, along with Wits' Dr Nadine Gravett and Dr Adhil Bhagwandin and colleagues from the NGO Elephants Without Border in Botswana and the University of California in Los Angeles, made "scientific versions of the well-known consumer fitness and wellness tracker, Fitbit, to study the sleeping patterns of elephants in the wild".

This is according to an article, 'The ultimate power nap', published on the official Wits webpage, citing incredible information on how much elephants sleep - and how they sleep - in their natural environments. 

SEE: Cruising Botswana's Chobe on a photographic houseboat safari

Manger says that they attached the Fitbits to two matriarch elephants' trunks, thinking that this body part would be the most accurate to measure the elephants' activity and 'awakeness'. 

The only previous information published about these incredible animals' sleeping patterns were researched in zoos and other closed environments. 

What they found 

The main finding of the study, recently published in the peer-reviewed, open access online resource journal PLOS ONE, show that the elephants "slept only two hours per day on average, and this sleep occurred mostly in the early hours of the morning, well before dawn," they say. 

The data also showed that environmental conditions like temperature and humidity related to when the elephants slept. Interestingly, sunlight and when the sun rises or sets did not have a profound effect on the elephants' sleeping patterns. 

Wild elephants are also able to sleep standing up, or while lying down, the data showed - although the latter only occurred every three to four days. 

Fitting into the 'environmental' theory, elephants would also easily compromise sleep in order to ensure safety. When the elephants were "disturbed by such things as predators, poachers, or a bull elephant in musth", the researchers say, "they could go without sleep for up to 48 hours" and also walk up to 30 to 40km just to get away from the unrest.

The study concludes that "the elephant is, as far as we know, the shortest sleeping mammal". 

At an average of two hours per day, "the total sleep times recording for the two matriarch elephants in this study are substantially less than that recorded for sleep times in captive elephants and from observational studies of wild elephants.

"The next shortest sleepers of mammals, after the elephants, appear to be the domestic horse, which sleeps for two hours and 53 minutes per day," they say. 

ALSO SEE: Human-elephant conflict: Bees fight the sustainable battle in Kenya

Do elephants dream? 

According to the sleeping pattern data, they do! But dreaming, the study found, occur very little and likely only when the elephants were lying down to sleep. This means the ellies only dream every other day, and not every night like most humans do. 

The reason the researchers were interested in whether elephants dream when they sleep, is because this kind of sleep, called REM sleep, is "important for consolidating memories". 

It's no secret that elephants have long-term memories - seen in the way they revisit gravesites and remember different elephants from different herds over long periods of time. But, as seen in the findings, elephants do "not need REM sleep every day to form these memories.” 

You can learn more about what the research found in the video below: 

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