- This article is about the classic North American elk. For the species Alces alces, called "elk" in Europe, see moose. For other uses, see Elk (disambiguation).
The North American elk or wapiti (Cervus canadensis) is one of the largest species of deer in North America and eastern Asia. Among members of the deer family, only moose are larger. Elk once roamed free throughout that part of North America that includes the United States. Today elk are limited largely to the Rocky Mountain region, and to certain other regions where State authorities and interested conservationists have re-introduced it.
Name and etymology
The name elk comes from the Latin alces, the original common name for the animal called moose in North America. The earliest European explorers, when they first saw these creatures, called them alke, the then-current form of the name for moose. With the discovery of the American variety of moose, confusion reigned, but the name alke or elk was already established.
Most zoologists use the Shawnee name wapiti, which means "white rump," a reference to the light-colored patch on the posterior of all elk.
Until 2004, elk were considered a subspecies of the red deer (Cervus elaphus). But mitochondrial DNA surveys have now established that the North American elk was never a subspecies of the red deer and in fact has more in common with other members of the genus Cervus than with the red deer.
- Eastern elk (Cervus canadensis canadensis), now extinct
- Rocky Mountain elk (Cervus canadensis nelsoni), native to the Rocky Mountains and other western lands, and since transplanted to various lands east of the Mississippi River
- Roosevelt elk (Cervus canadensis roosevelti), native to the Canadian province of British Columbia and the American States of Washington, Oregon, and northern California, and since transplanted to Alaska
- Manitoban elk (Cervus canadensis manitobensis), native to Manitoba and Saskatchewan
- Merriam elk (Cervus canadensis merriami), now extinct, once native to Arizona and New Mexico
- Tule elk (Cervus cannodes), a "dwarf species" native to some wetland regions of central California
Anatomy and Physiology
An adult bull elk weighs between 700 and 1200 pounds, stands five feet at the shoulder, and is 8 feet long from nose to tail. The cow weighs 500 pounds, stands four and a half feet at the shoulder, and is six and one-half feet from nose to tail.
Digestion and Diet
Like all deer, elk are ruminants. Their stomachs have four chambers; one chamber stores food and the other three complete its digestion. In addition, elk can change their diet readily to adapt to changing food availability. Elk prefer to graze rather than browse. Their favorite foods include wheat, buckwheat, rye, clover, oats, timothy, and birds-foot trefoil.
Elk are colored multiple shades of brown and tan, with an emphasis on contrast. The head is dark brown, and the body varies in color from light to pale yellow. The hindquarters have the characteristic off-white color that gives the elk its Shawnee name; a black line surrounds this region. The neck and throat are covered with a mane of long, dark hair.
Elk grow a rich coat of fur with the approach of winter and shed this coat in the springtime.
The skeleton of elk is typical of that of other large deer. The males, or bulls, are the only gender having antlers. Each year they grow some of the most impressive antlers in all the deer kind. A bull sheds its antlers in the winter, and regrows them beginning in the spring. Each year they are more complex. Antlers confer social status and are potent weapons of defense.
Initially as the antlers grow they are covered with a short fur called velvet. This velvet has blood vessels that nourish the antlers as they grow. When the antlers have completed their growth, the bull sheds the velvet and the antlers harden. After the annual rut, the bull sheds his antlers. A bull's antlers will grow as fast as one inch per day.
The bones of elk limbs have a double-pulley arrangement called the astragalus. With this arrangement, the bones can move in a single plane and thus are much more efficient. In addition, an elk hoof has four digits, two to grip with and the other two to support their weight. An elk can achieve a top speed of 35 miles per hour.
Elk are mammalian. The females, or cows, carry their young (calves; singular: calf) within their bodies and nurse them after they are born. The gestation period is eight and one-half months; calving time takes place in May or June. Calves are born with spotted fur and are almost all singletons, though twinning rarely occurs. The typical nursing period lasts for nine months. A typical newborn calf will weigh 35 pounds.
A successful bull will gather to himself an often sizable herd, or harem, of cows, some with their calves. Other bulls will challenge him for his harem, usually through their custom of bugling (see below). Usually the ranking bull need do little more than display his vastly superior antlers to convince the challenger to withdraw. Rarely will a challenger actually join battle with another bull that has him seriously overmatched. But two evenly matched bulls will fight, sometimes to the death. Often a bull will win a "Pyrrhic victory": he might win, but at the cost of severe-enough injury to make him vulnerable to defeat in the next challenge that he receives and accepts, or infection of his many wounds.
The bull elk's most distinctive habit during reproductive season, or "rut," is the bugle call, or bugling. The voice of an elk sounds very much like a flute. A bull elk sounds his bugle call either to attract cows, to challenge another bull for control of his harem, or to warn other bulls to stay clear.
Elk today are found in North America (specifically the western United States and in some eastern States where authorities have re-introduced it) and in eastern Asia. Elk might well have crossed from Siberia into North America either with the first Amerindian peoples or before their migration.
Elk are highly adaptable to many and varied habitats, but generally prefer large green meadows for feeding, with nearby forests (usually hardwoods) for shelter. Elk tend to displace other members of the deer family, especially the white-tailed deer, wherever they roam or are reintroduced.
Elk once roamed freely throughout the northeastern and western United States. However, over-hunting and population pressure caused extinction of the eastern subspecies of elk in 1869. Originally, ten million elk were present in North America; that population dwindled to 100,000 by 1907. Today most game management departments and conservation experts estimate that from 500,000 to 750,000 elk live in North America today, though some estimate that the elk population might now be as high as one million.
The largest threat that elk pose to man is crop destruction. Elk are voracious eaters and love to graze. Most authorities, like those in Pennsylvania, have achieved their elk management goals by planting "crops" of the favorite foods of the elk in meadows. Though a bull elk is quite capable of destroying a vehicle, elk have not generally been known to kill humans. Though an elk, especially a bull, can kill a man easily, elk will run from danger rather than fight—and because a bull elk can usually crash his way out of danger through any obstacle, cornering an elk is very difficult and indeed almost impossible.
The cougar, or mountain lion, is the most deadly predator of elk. Lesser feline species will often kill elk calves. But the greatest threat to the elk population has been simple loss of habitat on account of increasing human settlement. Determined management of elk and reclamation of lost habitat has allowed the elk to recover.
Chronic wasting disease is the form of prion disease peculiar to the deer family. Elk are no exception. Prion disease remains a serious problem in the native lands of the Rocky Mountain elk. It has not spread east of the Mississippi thus far.
Elk are social animals. The cows gather in herds during most of the year, except that cows prefer to give birth in solitude. Bulls tend to travel alone or in bachelor groups, except during the rut. Bulls will challenge or fight with one another during rut but not in other seasons. The oldest cows tend to lead the herds, except during rut when the bulls lead.
Elk are at their most active at dusk and at dawn. In very hot weather, elk will be more active at night. Witnesses have heard elk bugling at all hours of the night during the rut.
When elk were plentiful, people of all cultures once hunted them for food and used their hides for clothing and, in Native American cultures, blankets. Modern hunters kill elk for their meat, preserve the antlers as trophies, and often use the canine teeth, or ivories, for jewelry. Most jurisdictions allow people to collect fallen antlers, and many of these are used for ornamental purposes.
- Keck, Stu. "Elk Subspecies and Distribution." <http://www.bowhunting.net/>, n.d. Accessed September 29, 2008.
- Ludt CJ, Schroeder W, Roffman O, and Kuehn R. "Mitochondrial DNA phylogeography of red deer (Cervus elaphus)." Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 31(3):1064-1083, June 2004. doi:10.1016/j.ympev.2003.10.003 Accessed September 29, 2008.
- "Fast Facts About Elk." Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, n.d. Accessed September 29, 2008.
- Keck, Stu. "Elk Anatomy and Physiology." <http://www.bowhunting.net/>, n.d. Accessed September 29, 2008.
- Fagan, Damian. "Elk or Wapiti." DesertUSA, n.d. Accessed September 29, 2008.
- Brunner, Melissa. "Elk." "Environmental Education for Kids", Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, n.d. Accessed September 29, 2008.
- Link, Russell. "Entry for Elk." Living with Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, 2008. Accessed September 29, 2008.
- Beginning in 1921, Pennsylvania foresters re-introduced Rocky Mountain elk into a circumscribed region in western Pennsylvania. Many false starts followed, including one tragic year in which an enraged farmer systematically killed forty elk in a single year. Today the Pennsylvania Gaming Commission estimates that seven hundred elk live in Pennsylvania today. Other eastern States have tried to re-introduce elk into their lands, but Pennsylvania has enjoyed incomparable success.