A Stupid Joke About Elephants


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You’ve probably been taught that you can tell the difference between African Elephants and Indian Elephants by looking at their head and ears. The larger African Elephants have a rounded cranium and big ears (with a shape somewhat like the continent of Africa itself!), whereas the smaller Indian Elephants have a two-lobed skull and diminutive ears that tuck tidily alongside their heads.

An African Elephant and an Indian Elephant, with the different head & ear shape clearly visible.
If you’re inside the elephant or have access to an extraordinarily-large X-ray machine, you can also differentiate by counting the ribs: African Elephants tend to have 21 pairs, Indian Elephants only 20.

But suppose you don’t manage to get a glimpse at the front end of the elephant as it passes you. What hope is there of identifying the species? Well: you can look at its back!

Concave back of an African Elephant.
Never forget: this back belongs to an African Elephant.

African Elephants, it turns out, have a concave back, whereas Indian elephants have a convex back (a bit like a hump)!

Convex back of an Indian Elephant.
You could probably come up with some kind of mnemonic if you wanted, like “African Elephants back down when Indian Elephants back up.” But perhaps a better one than that.

I was having difficulty sleeping one night during the UK‘s current heatwave, so naturally I opted to practice my newfound ability to distinguish elephant species by their spines. Indian, Indian, African, Indian, African, African… etc.

And then I came across this one:

A flat elephant back, neither concave nor convex.
What is this thing?

African Elephant backs are concave. Indian Elephant backs are convex. But what does it mean when you see a flat elephant’s back?

It turns out…

…that’s a grey area.

Dan with a stuffed toy (African) elephant.
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