Elk

ELK

Photo Credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Scientific Name: Cervus elaphus

OTHER NAMES:  Wapiti, North American Elk

DESCRIPTION:  Elk (Cervus elaphus) are one of five species of deer in the Family Cervidae currently found in North America.  The summer coats of adult elk are dark brown to brownish red with a deep-yellow rump patch; however, the winter coat is dimorphic.  Both sexes develop cream-colored rump patches during the winter.  The winter coats of adult males or bulls are light cream-colored contrasted with a long, dark brown-colored mane.  The mane is not as distinctive in yearling bulls.  Adult females or cows remain darker during the winter.  At birth, calves have a reddish coat with cream-colored spots.  The spots fade by about three months of age. 

Elk are very vocal.  During the breeding season, bulls advertise by bugling.  A bugle is a powerful, high-pitched call, ending with a series of deep, guttural grunts.  Bulls also advertise by raking and rubbing their antlers on trees and limbs.  Bulls also use scent advertisements by urinating and wallowing their bodies in the moistened area.  Elk of both sexes and all ages use other vocalizations to communicate throughout the year, with various mews being most common. 

Bull elk grow antlers beginning in May and continuing through August of each year.  Antlers are shed in late March and April.  Antler growth begins when bulls reach approximately one year of age.  A bull’s first antlers typically are unbranched spikes.  Two year old bulls can produce antlers with up to six tines, or points, per side.  Once bulls reach three years old, their antlers should have five or more points per side, with six per side being the most common.  Antler size usually increases as bulls grow older.  The largest antlers are produced by bulls 7 to 10 years old.  A mature bull’s antlers can weigh over 35 pounds, but average-sized antlers weigh 20 to 25 pounds. 

Newborn calves weigh about 30 to 35 pounds and can double their weight in just two weeks.  Most adult cows weigh between 500 and 600 pounds; adult bulls usually weigh between 600 and 825 pounds, but occasionally weigh over 1,000 pounds.  Cows tend to reach their maximum body weight between 3 and 7 years old and bulls reach maximum body size at 5 to 9 years of age.  Originally, there were six subspecies of Cervus elaphus in North America.  These subspecies included the Rocky Mountain elk (C. e. nelsoni), Manitoba elk (C. e. manitobensis), Roosevelt elk (C. e. roosevelti), Tule elk (C. e. nannodes), Merriam elk (C. e. merriami), and Eastern elk (C. e. canadensis).  Today, C. e. merriami and C. e. canadensis are extinct.       

DISTRIBUTION:  Prior to settlement by Europeans, most areas of North America were occupied by elk except for desert areas or the humid ecosystems of the Deep South.  C. e. canadensis occupied the mixed conifer-hardwood forest of southeastern Canada and the eastern U.S.; C. e. merriami occupied the dry mountains and chaparral forests of the Southwest; C. e. manitobensis inhabited cool shrub forests of the northern lakes region and the North American prairie; C. e. nelsoni were found in the vast inland mountains of the northwestern states and western Canada, C. e. roosevelti preferred the dense, coastal, conifer rain forests of the Pacific Northwest; and C. e. nannodes occupied the non-forested, inland valley bottomlands of California.  C. e. canadensis’ historic range included portions of Alabama.  Elk have not naturally occurred in Alabama since the early 1800s.  In 1916, the Alabama Department of Game and Fish received a shipment of 55 Rocky Mountain elk (C. e. nelsoni) from Jackson Hole, Wyoming.  These elk were released in Tuscaloosa, Sumter, Pickens, Chilton, and Calhoun counties in an attempt to reestablish wild elk populations in Alabama.  Disease, poaching, and problems with crop damage prevented the herds from establishing.  The last of these elk was reported killed in 1921 in Chilton County.  Other Southeastern states, including Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina, have established wild populations of C. e. nelsoni through relocations during the last 10 years.  

HABITAT:  Western populations of elk are migratory and utilize vastly different habitats at different times of the year.  Habitat selection is influenced by a wide range of factors, including topographic features (elevation, slope), meteorologic conditions (snow levels, temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, wind), food (availability, quality), cover (cover type, density, composition, site productivity, structure, successional stage, configuration), space, water, salt, and specialized needs (calving habitats, wallows, trails).  Seasonal habitat types for migratory elk populations are broadly classified as lowland winter range, midelevation transitional range, and upland summer range. 

FEEDING HABITS:  Approximately 90 percent of an elk’s day is spent feeding and resting.  In most habitats, elk must consume large quantities of low-quality forage in order to meet their daily nutritional requirements.  Elk consume 10 to 15 pounds (dry weight) of forage each day.  In order to consume this volume of food, elk spend four to six hours a day actively feeding.  This time is usually split between morning and evening feeding periods.  Elk are both browsers and grazers.  Elk are highly selective feeders when food choices are abundant.  They consume a wide variety of plant species, including forbs, grasses, and shrubs, throughout the year.  Their diet changes drastically from season to season, depending on food availability and nutritional needs.  Grasses and shrubs make up the majority of the winter diet.  Conifers also may be browsed.  These usually are the only plants available at this time.  Grasses are important in the spring diet, since they are some of the first plants to emerge as the weather warms.  They can make up 100 percent of the spring diet on some ranges.  The elk’s summer diet has a higher forb component and is of much higher quality than at other times of the year.  Food intake also is higher during the warmer months.  The summer diet is high in energy and protein, which is important for calf development, milk production, antler development, and building fat reserves for the fall and winter.  The fall brings a shift back to a grass/shrub-dominated diet.

LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY:  Elk are very gregarious, but the sexes are segregated during most of the year.  Group size varies according to habitat type and time of year.  Elk in denser habitats form smaller groups, while elk in more open habitats form larger groups.  Groups are smaller during summer and larger during winter.  Bulls tend to occupy the fringe habitats during times outside of the breeding season, while cows and calves occupy the central portions of the range during most of the year.  Elk are polygamous, with adult bulls gathering numerous cows and calves into a harem during the breeding season, also known as the rut, which occurs in August and September in most areas.  Adult bulls are not tolerant of other adult bulls and will herd their harems away from competing bulls or defend their harems through intimidation or fierce dominance fights.  Adult bulls often are tolerant of yearling bulls in and around the harem.  Cows generally give birth to a single calf in late May or June.  Most cows are not bred until they are two years old.  The cow seeks seclusion immediately prior to giving birth.  Once the calf is born, it remains hidden until it is three weeks old, associating with the cow for short periods to nurse.  It continues to nurse the cow until it is completely weaned at about four to five months of age.       

REFERENCES: 

Allen, R. H.  1965.  History and results of deer restocking in Alabama, bulletin no. 6.  Alabama Department of Conservation, Montgomery, Al.  50 pp.

Bryant, L. D. and C. Maser.  1982.  Classification and distribution.  Pages 1-59 in J. W. Thomas and D. E. Toweill, eds.  Elk of North America ecology and management.  Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, Pa. 

Geist, V.  1982.  Adaptive behavioral strategies.  Pages 219-277 in J. W. Thomas and D. E. Toweill, eds.  Elk of North America ecology and management.  Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, Pa. 

Nelson, J. R. and T. A, Leege.  1982.  Nutritional requirements and food habits.  Pages 323-367 in J. W. Thomas and D. E. Toweill, eds.  Elk of North America ecology and management.  Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, Pa.

Nowak, R. M.  1999.  Walker’s mammals of the world, sixth edition, volume two.  The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD and London, U.K.  903 pp.

Peek, J. M.  2003.  Wapiti.  Pages 877-888 in G. A. Feldhamer, B. C. Thompson, and J. A. Chapman, eds.  Wild mammals of North America:  biology, management, and conservation.  Second edition.  The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD and London, U.K.

Author: Chris Cook, Wildlife Biologist, Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.


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