The joyful function of mud wallowing in pachyderms

Pamushana | May 2019

It is most satisfying watching elephants enjoying a mud bath! It starts off with the approaching walk, an elephant has when making his/her way to the water source. To describe it, I would have to say it’s an excited, exaggerated, fast walk while bobbing their heads up and down and to the sides at the same time. We call it ‘the water walk’. Even for the novice person you can pick up the excitement of the elephant looking forward to a thirst-quenching cool drink, usually followed by refreshing mud bath.

Elephants have very specific ways of preparation to make sure they get the right consistency of mud for their bath. The one way is for the elephant to churn the mud up from the bottom of the water source with their trunk or tusks before spraying themselves, and the second is to kick one of their feet back and forth to stir up and mix the water with mud. The latter is a very loud and elaborate affair.

On occasion, elephants will lie down in the mud on one or either side but usually its more the younger elephants that partake in this. It’s so much fun to watch and you can see the satisfaction on their faces.

Rhino’s on the other hand rarely show their exuberance on the way to the water but rather just walk up casually and have a drink, look around for an acceptable place that would afford them the most skin coverage of mud, and then buckle their legs, lowering themselves into the mud wallow. The rhino’s demeanour builds to excitement the longer they’re in the mud, feeling its cool stress-releasing properties. They typically start off on their sternum and then gradually start to roll left and right. They start to do this with a bit more vigour to try and cover as much of their sides up to their spinal column with as much mud as possible.

It doesn’t usually end after the mud bath! The mud bath is prerequisite for one more satisfying pastime for both elephant and rhino alike and that is finding their favourite tree or scratching post. Watching these animals scratching or rubbing is just priceless as you can see the satisfaction on their faces when they reach that spot on their bodies that they have been dying to scratch.

So, what are the functions of all these behavioural traits? Basically, most animals with sparse hair and few sweat glands partake in this behaviour for the purpose of cooling down (regulating body temperature), skin protection against direct sunlight, indirect removal of parasites such as ticks, protection against other biting insects, a form of scent marking for territorial animals, and as skin maintenance. In our part of the world, the animals we most commonly see doing this are elephants, rhino, buffalo and warthogs.

Particularly speaking about elephants, maintaining body temperature (normal body temperature is between 35 to 37 °C) is very important because of the combined metabolic heat from digestion, coupled with exposure to direct sunlight means they have to regulate themselves by drinking water, mud wallowing, seeking out shade in the heat of the day and relying on their blood reticulation system through the network of veins in their thinskinned ears. Over 10 litres of blood flow through the ears every minute and this can drop the temperature of the blood by 3 or 4 degrees Celsius.