Elephant's Lack of Sleep May Force Us To Re-evaluate REM's Role in Humans
Elephants are known for their Tremendous memory, Sleeping seems to be something they forget to do.
Sleeping on average 2 hours a day these insomniac elephants traveled nearly 19 miles in 10 hours without rest and stayed up for a record 46 hours straight, according to the study conducted by the UCLA Center for Sleep Research and the nonprofit research group Elephants Without Borders.
When scientist attached two elephants with “Fitbit's” and GPS devices, it's safe to say they weren't looking for step counts, but they were interested in how long elephants sleep, how far they walk and what their schedule was like on an average day.
The purpose of sleep is still baffling scientist and the discovery of Elephants being the ultimate insomniacs made the question of "Why do we sleep?" even more confusing.
The basic question of why every mammal needs this period of inactivity and extreme vulnerability has remained unanswered for years and this study created more questions than it answered.
It is known as a fact that bigger animals – like elephants – are known to need less sleep than smaller animals. But until now elephant's sleeping patterns have only been studied in captivity.
In the wild elephant's sleep less says Paul Manger, a neuroscientist at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa.
"The elephants were studied for the continuous 35 day period [from a distance]," Jerry Siegel, director of the Center for Sleep Research, told NBC News. "Elephants move with their herd and move very frequently, so animals sleeping a lot would be left behind."
The study concluded that the elephants' 2 hours of sleep per day is a new record for a mammal's sleeping pattern and is more than 50% less when compared to captive elephants' who generally sleep on average five to six hours a day.
The study leaders implanted Fitbit-like gyroscopic devices in the trunks of two elephant matriarchs roaming the Chobe National Park in Botswana. They clocked the pair sleeping on average two hours per day, the shortest measured in any land mammal.
Matriarchs are responsible for overseeing all of the herd's decisions about where to go for food and how to avoid predators and could be sleeping less because the amount of responsibility imposed on them.
The study was done with these two elephants only, and with that small of a sample size, other factors may come into play.
The herd follows the Matriarchs lead and if she believes skipping a night’s sleep when traveling, perhaps to avoid poachers or predators, and only slept lying down every three to four nights, then that will certainly affect the finding of the test.
Without predators and with their nutrition and shelter provided daily that may account for captive elephants sleeping twice as much as their brothers and sisters who live in the wild.
One thing that has come out of the study is the fact that with the elephant's sleep pattern limiting their capacity for rapid eye movement or REM sleep, which in humans is associated with dreaming.
One theory states that humans dream to consolidate our memories, but elephants who are renowned for their capacity to remember things in this study had very limited REM sleep. This questions the link between REM sleep and higher brain function.
Manger said, “We are probably going to have to re-evaluate what REM sleep is for.” He says this is backed by studies on dolphins and whales, also intelligent mammals, which seem not to experience REM sleep at all.
The scientists also found they could predict when the elephants slept based on environmental factors like temperature, humidity and wind speed—but not by light. This is interesting, says Manger, since it corresponds to findings that Bushmen in Southern Africa who live in out the open wake up not at dawn like their housebound counterparts, but at the coldest time of night.
These results could change how we think about sleeping disorders and how to treat them, says Manger. Light therapy is used to treat people with wonky sleeping patterns, but this might not be the right approach.
Ultimately more studies will help scientists understand the evolution of sleep and hopefully unlock its purpose. “Knowing how different animals sleep and why they do so in their own particular way, helps us to understand how humans sleep, why we do, and how we might get a better night’s sleep.”
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