One of these things is not like the other…but at first it might be hard to see the difference between African and Asian elephants. After all, they’re both big, and grey, and trunked; how much does their zip code really matter at the end of the day?
A lot as it turns out. If you could put them side-by-side, the first difference you’d probably notice is the ears. African elephants have large ears filled with hundreds of tiny capillaries to help them release excess heat, keeping them cooler on the hot, often treeless plains of Africa. Asian elephants have smaller, curved ears, likely because they live in slightly cooler climates.
Now that you’ve had a peek at the ears, look up. Is there something slightly…camel-like about that Asian elephant’s forehead? Unlike their smooth-headed African counterparts, Asian elephants have a distinctly humped skull (maybe they store double the wisdom up there for later?).
Asian elephants may have twice the head-space, but African elephants have twice the grip:
That’s because an African elephant’s trunk is equipped with two “fingers,” which allow it to really grasp onto leaves and grasses before bringing them to its mouth. Asian elephants use their single finger to curl around food, which they then squeeze up into their mouths.
Maybe the ease with which they can grab onto food explains why African elephants get so much bigger than Asian elephants. You can only be speaking in relativities when 6000 kg (13,200 lbs.) is “the small one.”
There are other differences: African elephants have looser, more wrinkled skin; Asian elephants have harder trunks and bigger bellies; African elephants sometimes have fewer toenails on both their front and hind legs (though you may not want to get close enough on your safari to count the toenails).
They may not seem that important to you, but nature thinks otherwise: African and Asian elephants can’t be interbred; the only known crossbred calf died within just two weeks.
That means that Dumbo, whose big ears look remarkably different than those of his mother, was probably even more special than you thought!