March 6th, 2006
It’s not often that I shout “holy shit!” while listening to NPR alone in my car, but that’s what I did a few weeks along when All Things Considered aired the story of Osama the Hippopotamus. “He’s believed to be a male,” the reporter said of the hippo who has been terrorizing villagers on the Congo River, “though no one has really gotten a good look at him. A full-grown male hippopotamus can weigh up to 8,000 pounds …”
What?! That can’t be right, thought I — he must have meant eight hundred pounds. What an embarrassing gaff to broadcast on national radio. Later he said that hippos are considered to be “the most lethal animal in Africa, killing more people each year than lions, crocodiles, and elephants.” That struck me as almost equally improbable. I thought hippos were cuddly. And only attacked marbles.
But I figured I’d doublecheck before sending an email to NPR starting “Dear dumbasses,” and did so as soon as I got home. “How was work?” The Queen asked as I walked in the door; “No time for chit-chat!” I exclaimed, “I gotta go look up hippos in Wikipedia!”
And whatta’ya know? “Hippos average 3.5 metres (11 ft) long, 1.5 metres (5 ft) tall at the shoulder, and weigh from 1,500 kg to 3,200 kg (3,300 to 7,000 lb) …”
I sat there at my computer for a moment, trying to process this information. Then it occurred to me that the elephant, world’s largest land animal, must somehow be even larger.
I braced myself and surfed over the the Wikipedia page for Loxodonta africana. “The Savanna Elephant stands on average 13 feet (4 meters) at the shoulder,” it said. “And weighs approximately 15,400 pounds (7,000 kilograms) ….” Subsequent research revealed that Wikipedia’s estimate is on the high end of the spectrum — The Columbia Encyclopedia has them down for an average weight of seven tons (14,000 lbs.); Britannica pegs their maximum weight at 16,500 lb; Encarta says they “weigh up to 7,000 kg (15,400 lb).” My guess is the person who did the Wikipedia entry came across that “up to 7,000 kg” figure, mistaken cited 15,400 lb as their average weight, and that 14,000 lbs. is more accurate.
But still: 14,000 lbs! That’s just insane. And I don’t even understand the physics of it. If you hollowed out a male, African elephant, I can’t imagine you could fit seventy 200-pound human beings inside the skin, even if you ground those people into slurry and poured ‘em in through a funnel (free Science Fair project idea right there, if any kid are reading this).
Now, I’m notoriously bad at estimating things: population of cities, miles of a road, number of beers it takes to get myself drunk, etc. But even so, I had a hunch that just about everyone would get this one wrong when asked. So last week I slapped together an poll to see what people say when asked the average weight of a male, African elephant. When I’d amassed a little over 2000 votes, I made some graphs, thereby transmogrifying this exceptionally haphazard experiment into SCIENCE!
And how did you all fare? Oh my goodness, not well at all I’m afraid.
Average guess: 4964.60 lbs. — i.e., close to a third of the actual weight. It probably would have been a lot lower, but there were a few 50,000 lbs. and one 65,000 guesses. The top five most common guesses: 2,000 lbs (1/7 of the actual weight), 4,000 lbs., 3,000 lbs, 5,000 lbs, and 2,500 lbs. Eighty-one people guessed 12,000 (it was the eighth most common guess), eleven guessed 14,000, and another eleven guessed 15,000.
I’d always heard that, on questions of estimation, you could expect to see a bell-shaped curve around the correct response. Obviously that wasn’t the case here. I’ve convinced that it’s because the weight of an elephant is so incredible — by which I mean, it honestly strains credibility. Two thousand pound is a good guess for weight of “animal that is extremely large and yet still real”; 14,000 pounds is a good guess for the weight of, like, “dragon,” or something equally as chimeric.
By the way, the largest elephant ever recorded weighed 12,000 kilograms, or nearly 26,500 lbs. I’m glad they didn’t mention that on NPR, or I probably would have driven off the freakin’ road.