Skip to Content

Why Do Elephants Throw Dirt on Their Backs?

why do elephants throw dirt on themselves
Why do elephants throw dirt on themselves?

Elephants are known for throwing dirt on themselves, and there are several reasons why they do this. Firstly, it helps to protect their skin from the sun’s harmful rays, acting as a natural sunscreen. Secondly, the dirt can repel insects and other pests that may be attracted to the elephant’s scent.

Additionally, the dirt can help to regulate the elephant’s body temperature, providing a cooling effect in hot weather and insulation in cooler weather. Throwing dirt on themselves allows elephants to maintain their health and comfort in their natural habitat.

Protection Against Sunburn and Insects

muddy elephant
One very muddy elephant.

One of the main reasons why elephants throw dirt on themselves is to protect their sensitive skin from the harsh African sun. Despite having skin up to 2.5cm (1 inch) thick, elephants’ skin is susceptible, especially to UV rays and heat from the sun. The dirt acts like sunscreen and protects against the sun’s harmful rays.

The dirt elephants throw on themselves can also help protect them from insects. Elephants are often plagued by biting insects, such as mosquitoes and tsetse flies, which can carry diseases. By covering themselves in the dirt, elephants create a barrier that helps to repel these insects, keeping them safe and healthy.

Studies have shown that elephants that spend more time in the sun are more likely to throw dirt on themselves than those that spend less time in the sun. This suggests that elephants are aware of the potential dangers of sunburn and are actively taking steps to protect themselves.

Elephants also use mud and dirt to regulate their body temperature. Throwing dirt on themselves creates a layer of insulation that helps keep them cool in hot weather. This is particularly important for elephants, as they have few sweat glands.

The Role of Dirt in Social Interaction Among Elephants

family of elephants taking a mud bath
Elephant family taking a mud bath to cool off.

Elephants are social animals that live in herds. They communicate with one another through a variety of means, including vocalisations, body language, and touch. One of these is also through the use of dirt.

Elephants throw dirt on their backs for various reasons, including protecting themselves from the sun, keeping cool, and warding off insects. However, dirt also plays an essential role in social interaction among elephants.

When elephants throw dirt on themselves, they also spread their scent, which can communicate information about their identity, reproductive status, and social rank to other elephants in their group. In addition to spreading their own scent, elephants will also throw dirt on other elephants as a form of greeting or bonding.

This behaviour is most commonly observed between mother elephants and their young but can also occur between unrelated elephants. By throwing dirt on another elephant, an elephant essentially shares its scent with the other elephant, which can help strengthen its bond.

Elephants sometimes throw dirt on themselves and immediately approach another elephant as if to say, “smell me!” This behaviour is thought to be a way for elephants to establish social connections and reinforce their bonds with other elephants in their group.