Elk range in color from dark brown in winter to tan in summer and have a characteristic buff colored rump. The head, neck, belly, and legs are darker than both the back and sides. Elk generally have a long head with large ears and widely branching antlers as long as 1.1 to 1.5 m from tip to tip are found on males only. A dark shaggy mane hangs from the neck to the chest. With a thick body, short tail and long slender legs, most elk stand approximately 0.75 to 1.5 m high at the shoulder and are 1.6 to 2.7 m from nose to tail. Most males are 10 percent larger than females and may weigh twice as much. Females weigh from 171 to 292 kg, averaging 241 kg. Males weigh from 178 to 497 kg, averaging 331 kg.
Elk, or red deer, were once found throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere, from Europe through northern Africa, Asia, and North America. Extensive hunting and habitat destruction have limited elk to a portion of their former range. Elk populations in eastern North America were extirpated largely as a result of overhunting. Today large populations in North America are found only in the western United States from Canada through the Eastern Rockies to New Mexico, and in a small region of the northern lower peninsula of Michigan. Elk were reestablished in the eastern United States, including Michigan, with three transplantations throughout the 1900's. Various elk populations in the western United States, including Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, contributed to the reestablishment. In Eurasia elk populations are now confined to protected areas and less populated regions. Their traditional range extended from 65 degrees N in Norway to 33 degrees N in Africa. Elk have been introduced to Ireland, Argentina, Chile, Australia, and New Zealand.
Elk prefer open woodlands and avoid dense unbroken forests. Elk can be found in coniferous swamps, clear cuts, aspen-hardwood forests, and coniferous-hardwood forests. They are found through a wide range of elevations, typically from sea level to 3000 m, although they can also occur at higher elevations.
Shortly before the fall rut (breeding season), in late September and early October, male elk lose the velvet on their antlers and begin to compete for access to females. Dominant males form "harems", small groups of female deer that they will mate with. Larger and more dominant males are able to maintain larger harems of females and restrict access to them. They defend a kind of "moving territory" around the harem. Males advertise this territory, and their status, through bugling. Fights between dominant males and intruders can be intense and result in injury, exhaustion, or death.
Both males and females are sexually mature at sixteen months, although young males do not usually mate until they are a few year old and can compete with more mature males. Gestation generally lasts between 240 and 262 days and results in a single birth (twins are rare). This low annual production is offset by a high investment in protective maternal care. At birth, calves weigh around 15 to 16 kg and have creamy spots on their back and sides. Their hooves are soft. Just after birth, a cow and her calf will live alone for several weeks. At 16 days the calf is able to join the herd, and weaning is completed within 60 days.
Female elk protect their calves by hiding them in a secluded area during their first few weeks of life. They nurse and protect their young through their first year of life. Male elk do not contribute to the care of their young.
Longevity in elk is difficult to assess because most populations are affected by hunting pressures. Elk can live beyond 20 years.
Elk are social animals; they live in summer herds with as many as 400 individuals. These herds are matriarchal and are dominated by a single cow. Seasonal migrations occur elevationally, with elk being found at higher elevations during summer, and migrating to lower elevations during winter. As the fall mating season approachs, bulls form harems, which they defend with their large size and aggressive nature. In spring, the sexes separate; females leave to give birth, while bulls form their own separate summer herds. After birth, cows and their calves form nursery groups until calves are ready to join the herd. Bulls are only territorial during the mating season and are otherwise not aggressive toward other elk.
Elk browse in the early morning and late evening . They are inactive during the day and the middle of the night, when they spend most of their time chewing their cud.
Elk have a close association with white-tailed deer, sharing similar environments and similar habitats.
Elk have a home range of approximately 600 square miles.
Elk have keen senses of smell, hearing, and vision. They communicate with other elk using all of these senses, as well as touch. Elk are known as the noisiest of all cervids. Newborns bleat and squeal, females bark, grunt and squeal, and males are known for their characteristic low pitched bellow or roar, known as bugling. Bugling is used to attract mates and advertise territories during the fall rutting season and can be heard for long distances.
Elk are browsers feeding on grasses, sedges, and other plants in summer and woody growth (cedar, wintergreen, eastern hemlock, sumac, jack pine, red maple, staghorn, and basswood) in the winter months. Favorites of the elk include dandelions, aster, hawkweed, violets, clover, and the occasional mushroom. Elk are ruminant animals, similar to cows, and therefore regurgitate their food and chew it again to aid in digestion. This is known as chewing cud.
Predators of elk include mountain lions, gray wolves, and bears. Calves may fall victim to bobcats and coyotes. Healthy adults are rarely preyed on. Elk protect themselves from predators through their herding behavior and large size. They may also use their antlers (males) and sharp hooves to protect themselves.
Elk are important in shaping the plant communities in which they live through their browsing. They also serve as an important source of prey during parts of the year for large predators, such as brown bears.
Elk are considered pests by many farmers. Overbrowsing can cause damage to valued trees and agricultural crops. Elk may also contribute to the spread of some diseases to livestock.
Elk were originally valued by the early settlers and Native Americans as food and for their fur, teeth, hides, and antlers. Today elk are economically valuable for tourism, hunting, and for their meat and other products.
Elk have no special conservation status, but excessive hunting and habitat modification have lead to declines in their natural distribution and abundance. Most populations were nearly wiped out in the 19th century. The subspecies of elk once found in the eastern United States is now extinct. Recently, conservation measures by private citizens and Departments of Natural Resources have led to large increases in elk populations, putting them largely out of danger, although some populations remain threatened by hunting and habitat modification. Elk are generally subject to limited, legal sport hunting and are farmed for meat in some western states.
Tanya Dewey (editor), Animal Diversity Web.
Rachel Lesley Senseman (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.
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Kurta, A. 1995. Mammals of the Great Lakes Region. University of Michigan Press. Ann Arbor, MI. 261-264.
Nowak, R.M. and J.L. Paradiso. 1991. Walker's Mammals of the World. The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD. 1207-1212.