Common Name: Elk
Species: Cervus elaphus
photo M. Noonan
Elk belong to the Mammalian Order
Artiodactyla, in the family Cervidae. Other members of
Cervidae include moose, mule deer, and whitetail deer.
The elk’s scientific name is Cervus elaphus. The generic
name, cervus, means “stag or deer". The specific name,
elaphus, is derived from the Greek word elaphos, meaning
“deer”. North Americans refer to this species as elk,
while Europeans call them red deer.
Second to the moose in size and
weight as the largest North American deer, elk grow to
4-5 feet in height and nine feet in length. Females,
called cows, are noticeably smaller than males, or
bulls. Adult bulls usually weigh over 1000lbs, with cows
weighing less than half that, at about 400lbs. Like most
cervids, male elk are identified by their two antlers,
which they grow each spring. These antlers are shed
after the rut in the winter.
Elk live throughout the western
United States, especially west of the Rocky Mountains,
north and western Canada, and northern Eurasia,
including the British Isles. Their range once included
most of North America and Europe, but hunting and
habitat loss for centuries has limited their range. Some
populations have been re-established in the Eastern
United States. Elk have been introduced in Australia,
New Zealand, Argentina, Chile and Ireland.
Elk prefer open woodlands.
Hardwood forests of aspen or conifers are especially
favored. A variety of elevations are support elk
populations, ranging from sea level to over 3000 feet.
As browsers, elk feed on grasses, forbs and sedges
during the warmer months, and the woody growth of cedar,
evergreen and hemlock during the winter. Elk are
ruminant, which means they digest their food in two
separate steps. They first ingest, chew and swallow
their food, then regurgitate the partially digested
food, chewing and swallowing it a second time.
Elk are very social. Some herds
during the summer contain over 400 animals. This species
migrates to higher elevations as seasonal temperatures
rise, and lower elevations as seasonal temperature fall.
This means elk spend summer months at higher elevations
than winter months.
Fall is mating season. Bulls
become territorial and form harems of cows. These harems
are defended aggressively. Antler jousts between males
is not uncommon during this season.
As spring approaches and receptive
females are bred by the dominant male of their harem,
the sexes separate. Gestation is 8-9 months. A single
calf is born, weighing about 35 pounds. Calves are
precocial, walking shortly after birth. A creamy white
spotted coat helps to camouflage the calf for the first
two weeks of its life. During these initial weeks, its
mother will leave it resting in the brush while she
feeds during the day. The calf then joins the rest of
the herd. Calves are fully weaned after 60 days. Sexual
maturation for both sexes is 16 months. Elk live to over
Elk are currently not endangered.
However, during the colonization of North America,
populations of elk were extirpated from New York,
Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana all before 1900. Some
populations of elk are protected, including the
Roosevelt elk of Strathcona Park in the Pacific
Northwest. Rocky Mountain elk are the most numerous
subspecies of elk, with the eastern subspecies
completely extinct. Some western populations of elk
suffer from chronic wasting disease, a type of
spongiform encephalitis related to mad cow disease (BSE
or Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis).