Elk Facts: Animals of North America

Two juvenile male Elk in California. Most wild Elk in North America today are to be found living in the Western U.S.
Two juvenile male Elk in California. Most wild Elk in North America today are to be found living in the Western U.S.

5. Physical Description

The Elk is the second largest member of Cervidae (the Deer family), following only the Moose. In most parts of the world people often get confused between the two, but there are distinct differences. An adult male Elk is referred to as a “Bull”, and usually weighs between 700 and 1,000 pounds, with some being even larger. Female elk, meanwhile, are referred to as “cows”, and generally weigh between 450 and 650 pounds. Elk bulls have antlers that consist of a single beam angling upwards, as well as additional ones pointing backward, which may extend for as far as 5 feet away from their heads. Contrarily, female Elk do not possess these antlers. Both females and males have short tails, surrounded by a tan-colored patch around their rumps. For many North American indigenous peoples, Elk have been an important species. Their hides have long been utilized for clothing and shelter materials, and their bones were often shaped into tools.

4. Diet

There are major seasonal and geographical variations when it comes to Elk dietary patterns, but they are obligate herbivores at all times and places. Generally, however, they are grazers, and therefore rely on eating grasses for most of the year. They may also “browse” amidst woodier plants, depending on the season, and they tend to do the majority of their feeding in the morning and evening hours. For example, during summer they may consume forbs (flowering herbs), while they are likely to browse on aspen and willow during winter months, as grass becomes scarcer or even completely unavailable. The colder the climes they live within, the more elk tend to browse, while those in warmer areas can graze for longer periods of the year.

3. Habitat and Range

Elk habitats vary according to their respective locations, but they seem to prefer mountainous regions with grassy meadows, marsh meadows, low bushes in clearcut areas, forest edges, and fertile grassy valleys. In the winter, they will travel to lower elevations with less snowfall covering the forage. In summer, they return to the cooler temperatures found at higher elevations. The main threats to Elk are human hunting, natural predation, and starvation in times of food scarcity. Their main natural predators are Mountain Lions, but one may find grizzly bears, wolves, and many other animals preying upon Elk as well, depending upon the season and their location. Since they live in herds, they are at times able to protect themselves from such predators by charging them in masse. When they become isolated from their herds, and can’t employ such defensive strategies, they will tend to try to just run away. They are great runners, and this is usually their best defense tactic when alone. Sometimes Elk will also die from communicable diseases, or even from freezing to death amidst harsh winter weather. Indeed, elk are susceptible to various infectious diseases, some of which may be transmitted to them from local livestock, and vice versa. Many Elk diseases are also antibiotic-resistant, making their treatment problematic for human conservation efforts. This being said, human activity has actually been one of the primary causes of the decline of the species across much of their natural ranges. Elks were once found throughout much of North America, but they were over-hunted to the point to where now they are completely absent from some of their former homes. Still, across most of their current ranges, elks are found to be thriving, and thus the conservation status of elk is one of “least concern” of becoming endangered or extinct entirely.

2. Behavior

Elk are social animals that generally enjoy the company of other elk, and are docile at most times. Most aggressive behaviors occur within males as they try to establish a hierarchy, or when they are competing to establish dominance over other bulls within their respective communities. When these tensions do erupt into physical violence, they will use their antlers to crash into other bulls. A bull can dominate a group of adult females in general, but the migratory movements of an elk herd are ultimately determined by an older female leader, which could be thought of as the herd's “alpha” cow. When bulls attempt to challenge other bulls for mating rights, they often do so for rights over an entire group of females, headed by such an elder alpha cow. Typically, Elk are polygamous, and bulls will attempt to assemble females into “harems” (groups of mates that a bull will try to defend from the advances of competing bulls). Starting in August and lasting through November, a bull will try to join a herd of females and their calves, from which they stay separated from during most of the rest of the year.

1. Reproduction

Elk cows usually give birth to one single calf at a time, with twins being very rare. This usually occurs in May or June. An Elk pregnancy will usually last eight and a half months, with the resulting calf weighing between 30 and 40 pounds at birth. Newborns have a characteristically tawny-colored coat, which is speckled with white spots. Within minutes, a baby calf can walk and, within a month, a calf can begin to eat grass, although they usually continue to be nursed throughout much of the summer. By the time cold weather arrives again, a calf will typically already be independent from its mother.


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