Interesting facts about elks

elk

The elk, or wapiti (Cervus canadensis), is one of the largest species within the deer family called Cervidae.

This animal should not be confused with the still larger moose (Alces alces) to which the name “elk” applies in British English and in reference to populations in Eurasia.

Elks are native to North America and eastern Asia; they have adapted well to countries in which they have been introduced, including Argentina and New Zealand.

Elk range in forest and forest-edge habitat.

During the winter, they spend most of their time in the valleys between mountains, where they feed on shrubs beneath the snow. In the warmer spring and summer months, they move higher up in the mountains to graze and give birth.

Elk live 20 years or more in captivity but average 10 to 13 years in the wild.

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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 cows average 225 to 241 kilograms (496 to 531 pounds), stand 1.3 meters (4.3 feet) at the shoulder, and are 2.1 meters (6.9 feet) from nose to tail.

Bulls are some 40% larger than cows at maturity, weighing an average of 320 to 331 kilograms (705 to 730 pounds), standing 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) at the shoulder and averaging 2.45 meters (8.0 feet) in length.

Only the males have antlers, which start growing in the spring and are shed each winter. The largest antlers may be 1.2 meters (3.9 feet) long and weigh 18 kilograms (40 pounds).

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Antlers are made of bone which can grow at a rate of 2.5 centimeters (0.98 inch) per day. While actively growing, the antlers are covered with and protected by a soft layer of highly vascularised skin known as velvet. The velvet is shed in the summer when the antlers have fully developed.

Elk belong to an order of mammals called artidactyla, which means that they have an even number of toes on each foot. Camels, goats and cattle are also in this family.

Elk are ruminants and therefore have four-chambered stomachs.

Elk are herbivores. They eat a variety of foods depending on the season. Grasses, sedges, flowers and other soft plant foods compose their diet during summer months, while the growth of woody plants such as cedar and red maple make up their diet in winter. They also occasionally eat mushrooms.

elk eating

Elk consume an average of 9.1 kilograms (20 pounds) of various vegetation daily.

Elk are social animals who live in same-sex herds of 10 to 20 individuals, that are loosely structured, and may come together in much larger groups, particularly as they migrate to higher ground.

As is true for many species of deer, especially those in mountainous regions, elk migrate into areas of higher altitude in the spring, following the retreating snows, and the opposite direction in the fall.

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem elk herd numbers over 200,000 individuals and during the spring and fall, they take part in the longest elk migration in the continental U.S.

elk migration yellowstone

September and October mark the mating season for the elk.

Dominant males form “harems”, small groups of female deer that they will mate with. 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.

The gestation period is 240 to 262 days and the offspring weigh between 15 and 16 kilograms (33 and 35 pounds). When the females are near to giving birth, they tend to isolate themselves from the main herd, and will remain isolated until the calf is large enough to escape predators.

elk mother and calf

The offspring will remain with their mothers for almost a year, leaving about the time that the next season’s offspring are produced.

Wolf and coyote packs and the solitary cougar are the most likely predators, although brown and black bears also prey on elk.

Elk were once found across much of North America but they were killed off and driven to take refuge in more remote locations.

Elks are not endangered, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List, because the population is increasing, overall, and it has a wide distribution.

elk herd

Elk are also called wapiti, a Native American word that means “light-colored deer.”

Some cultures revere the elk as a spiritual force.

Elk are hunted as a game species. The meat is leaner and higher in protein than beef or chicken.

Elk are held in captivity, or farmed, for hunting, meat production and velvet collection.

A male elk can produce 10 to 11 kilograms (22 to 24 pounds) of antler velvet annually and on ranches in the United States, Canada and New Zealand, this velvet is collected and sold to markets in East Asia, where it is used in medicine.

The Rocky Mountain elk is the official state animal for Utah.

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