Common Name: Elk
Class: Mammalia
Order: Artiodactyla
Family: Cervidae
Genus: Cervus
Species: Cervus elaphus

photo M. Noonan

Elk Taxonomy/Description

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.

photo M. Noonan

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 Habitat/Diet

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.

photo M. Noonan

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.

Elk Behavior/Reproduction

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.

photo M. Noonan

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 20 years.

photo M. Noonan

Elk Conservation

photo M. Noonan

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).

Content provided by Canisius College students under the direction of Michael Noonan, PhD.