10 Fascinating Facts About Elk

Male Bull Elk, Jasper National Park

Feng Wei Photography / Getty Images 

One of the largest mammals in North America, male elk can weigh well over 700 pounds, though they generally lose weight during the winter breeding season. Females tend to be lighter, usually averaging around 500 pounds. Elk are also known by their indigenous name, “wapiti,” meaning “white rump,” given to them by the Shawnee people because of the animal’s light patch of beige hair on their otherwise dark brown-colored body.

From their iconic “bugle” call to their massive size, the following 10 facts show why the elk is so majestic and captivating.

1. Elk Are Often Mistaken for Moose

Bull elk bugling during rut season in Yellowstone National Park
Bull elk with antlers in Yellowstone National Park. JudiLen / Getty Images

There are a few ways to distinguish an elk from a moose, but their size and the shape of their antlers are the two main physical distinctions. Moose are the largest of the two, as they can grow up to 6.5 feet in height from hoof to shoulder, while elk usually measure 3 feet to 5 feet. Male moose also have wider, flat antlers, while elk antlers tend to have an elongated shape with points that come off the large beams.

However, the most obvious way to tell them apart is their social structure. Moose are much more solitary and enjoy hanging out alone; elk, on the other hand, travel in large herds (we’ll learn more about that later).

2. They’re the Loudest Members of the Deer Family

Male elk use their high-pitched roar, called bugling, to attract mates during their mating seasons. This loud bellowing sound is also used to advertise territories in the wintertime, and has a fundamental frequency of 2 kilohertz and higher (as a point of reference, a human child averages 0.3 kilohertz). Compared to its size, there is no vocal animal with the same abilities.

3. Only Males Have Antlers

Unlike some other deer species, like reindeer, only male elk have antlers. They begin growing their signature antlers in the spring, shedding them each winter. While they grow, elk antlers are covered with “velvet,” a soft layer of skin that sheds when the weather turns warm in the summer. Male elk use their antlers to compete with each other during the mating season, lowering their heads and knocking them with other males both to build strength and to win the attention of females.

4. They Prefer the Cold

A elk in the winter snow
Alina Bulexa / 500px / Getty Images 

No matter which region they inhabitat, elk are almost always more active when it is cooler. You’re more likely to see them in the winter and fall (during the mating season), as well as early spring. In Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa, elk do most of their summer browsing and foraging in the early mornings and late evenings to avoid the heat.

5. Elk Chew Their Cud Like Cows

Elk feed on grasses, sedges, and herbaceous flowering plants in the summer, and on woody growth such as cedar, jack pine, and red maple in the winter. Just like cows, they are ruminant animals, meaning that they regurgitate their food but continue to re-chew it to aid in digestion. A 2006 study in the Rocky Mountains revealed that elk typically forage in many of the same places in the springtime as cattle do in the summer and fall, overlapping over 60% of each other's territories.

6. They Can Help Restore Ecosystems

Elk are very important in shaping plant communities within their own habitats through their foraging and browsing. Similarly to bison, elk have been introduced to several national wildlife refuges to help restore grass prairie ecosystems. They eat mostly grass and wildflowers, but also browse on trees and shrubs like deer do, which helps promote and stimulate the growth of those prairie plants while controlling tree and shrub overgrowth. Elk also serve as important prey sources for large predators like brown bears. According to a 2014 study, about 40% of the recorded elk reintroduction attempts in eastern North America have been considered unsuccessful.

7. Calves Are Kept Hidden After They're Born

Elk calf at Rocky Mountain National Park
Rebecca Harding / Getty Images 

Elk newborns are kept hidden for the first several days of their lives. After giving birth, female elk find a camouflaged area in thick brush or tall grass to hide their babies, who lay motionless until they are about 16 days old. Calves are also born with almost no scent to avoid attracting predators and have white spots that help camouflage them, breaking up their outline and mimicking spots of light. In Yellowstone National Park, females with newborn calves spend more than 25% of their time scanning for predators (compared to males, who spend less than 10% of time scanning).

8. Elk Are Incredibly Social

A large herd of elk
 VisualCommunications / Getty Images

Elk live in large groups, also called herds, that can reach well into the hundreds and even thousands. Although herds are segregated by gender, they are matriarchal, meaning they are dominated by a single female or “cow” who runs the show. One of the largest on record is known as the "Jackson Elk Herd," which has an estimated 11,000 members that migrate from the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming to southern Yellowstone.

9. They Can Live Into Their Late 20s

Unlike many other deer species, elk actually live longer in the wild than in captivity, lasting an average of 26.8 years in the wild and 24.7 years in captivity.

10. Elk Populations Are Resilient

Elk are considered of “Least Concern” by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and their numbers have continued to increase thanks to conservation measures by private citizens and the Department of Natural Resources. The Californian subspecies (known as tule elk), for example, had dropped to less than five individuals in 1875, but thanks to strict protection measures populations were recovered to about 3,900 by 2010.

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