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The elephant is a large quadruped with a leathery hide and a prominent proboscis or trunk. It exists in two species, one in Africa, the other in Asia.

In the classical period the Asian elephant was known only locally; the African, however, achieved fame and prominence when the Cathaginian adventurer Hannibal obtained a supply (presumably from trans-Saharan sources) with which he mounted an invasion of Roman Spain, and then, via the Alps, of Italy. All but one of his elephants died, of swamp fever, before he attacked Rome, but the "mighty Roman Republic" had learned of elephants, and of the reticence of cavalry to approach them, and Roman generals thereafter lusted for elephant troops with which to cow their foes.

In the medieval period, the elephant was at the same time a "familiar" shape from Imperial Roman days, and an exotic luxury, given the difficulty of actually obtaining one. An elephant was supposed to be autopsied around the early-16th century.