1. Animals in seasonal environments often rely on photoperiodicity to time their reproduction. Elephants have a gestation length of approximately two years and a historical geographic distribution including higher latitudes than at present, so the evolution of a seasonal breeding pattern cued by photoperiodicity and timed to the long-day period is a theoretical option in both species.
2. We reviewed literature on reproductive patterns in free-ranging, semi-captive and captive Asian and African elephants, photoperiodic cueing, seasonal variation of body condition and other factors influencing their reproduction, as well as data from zoological collections on the timing of births.
3. Most of the free-ranging and all the semi-captive and captive elephant populations showed a moderate yet distinct seasonal breeding pattern.
4. Peak breeding activity of free-ranging Asian elephants took place in either the dry or the wet season, with no preference for short-day or long-day breeding at low latitudes (close to the equator) but a preference for long-day breeding at higher latitudes. Semi-captive Asian elephants mainly bred in the dry season when body condition was lowest and day-lengths were increasing. Peak conception often occurred in the wet season in free-ranging African elephants when body condition was highest, with no evident preference for short-day or long-day breeding at low latitudes but preference for long-day breeding at higher latitudes.
5. Asian and African elephants in zoos at latitudes from 43 to 53°N tended to conceive more often during spring and summer, i.e. when day-lengths were increasing. Body condition was not reported to vary significantly throughout the year and was rather high compared to in the wild.
6. We hypothesise that elephants are ‘long-day breeders’ in which the photoperiodic timing of conception can be influenced by many additional factors. Strategies to encourage natural conception in captive populations should include measures aimed at increasing breeding incentives in the northern hemisphere spring.