Last updated

Temporal range: 2.5–0  Ma
Early Pleistocene – Recent
A bull (male) in Alberta, Canada
Cow and calf elk (7437504452).jpg
A cow (female) with calf in Wyoming, United States
Scientific classification OOjs UI icon edit-ltr.svg
Domain: Eukaryota
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Artiodactyla
Family: Cervidae
Subfamily: Cervinae
Genus: Cervus
C. canadensis
Binomial name
Cervus canadensis
(Erxleben, 1777) [2]
Reconstructed (light green) and current (dark green) native ranges of Cervus canadensis

Various Cervus elaphus subspecies

The elk (pl.: elk or elks; Cervus canadensis), or wapiti, is the second largest species within the deer family, Cervidae, and one of the largest terrestrial mammals in its native range of North America and Central and East Asia. The word "elk" originally referred to the European variety of the moose, Alces alces, but was transferred to Cervus canadensis by North American colonists.


The name "wapiti" is derived from a Shawnee and Cree word meaning "white rump", after the distinctive light fur around the tail region which the animals may fluff-up or raise to signal their agitation or distress to one another, when fleeing perceived threats, or among males courting females and sparring for dominance. A similar trait is seen in other artiodactyl species, like the bighorn sheep, pronghorn and the white-tailed deer, to varying degrees.

Elk dwell in open forest and forest-edge habitats, grazing on grasses and sedges and browsing higher-growing plants, leaves, twigs and bark. Male elk have large, blood- and nerve-filled antlers, which they routinely shed each year as weather warms-up. Males also engage in ritualized mating behaviors during the mating season, including posturing to attract females, antler-wrestling (sparring), and bugling, a loud series of throaty whistles, bellows, screams, and other vocalizations that establish dominance over other males and aim to attract females.

Elk were long believed to belong to a subspecies of the European red deer (Cervus elaphus), but evidence from many mitochondrial DNA genetic studies, beginning in 1998, shows that the two are distinct species. The elk's wider rump-patch and paler-hued antlers are key morphological differences that distinguish C. canadensis from C. elaphus. Although it is currently only native to North America and Central and East Asia, elk once had a much wider distribution in the past; prehistoric populations were present across Eurasia and into Western Europe during the Late Pleistocene, surviving into the early Holocene in Southern Sweden and the Alps. The now-extinct North American Merriam's elk subspecies (Cervus canadensis merriami) once ranged south into Mexico. The wapiti has also successfully adapted to countries outside of its natural range where it has been introduced, including Argentina and New Zealand; the animal's adaptability in these areas may, in fact, be so successful as to threaten the sensitive endemic ecosystems and species it encounters.

As a member of the Artiodactyla order (and distant relative of the Bovidae), elk are susceptible to several infectious diseases which can be transmitted to and/or from domesticated livestock. Efforts to eliminate infectious diseases from elk populations, primarily by vaccination, have had mixed success. Some cultures revere the elk as having spiritual significance. Antlers and velvet are used in traditional medicines in parts of Asia; the production of ground antler and velvet supplements is also a thriving naturopathic industry in several countries, including the United States and Canada. The elk is hunted as a game species, and their meat is leaner, and higher in protein, than beef or chicken.

Naming and etymology

By the 17th century, Alces alces (moose, called "elk" in Europe) had long been extirpated from the British Isles, and the meaning of the word "elk" to English-speakers became rather vague, acquiring a meaning similar to "large deer". [3] The name wapiti is from the Shawnee and Cree word waapiti (in Cree syllabics: ᐙᐱᑎ or ᐚᐱᑎ), meaning "white rump". [4] There is a subspecies of wapiti in Mongolia called the Altai wapiti (Cervus canadensis sibiricus), also known as the Altai maral. [5]

According to the Oxford English Dictionary , the etymology of the word "elk" is "of obscure history". In Classical Antiquity, the European Alces alces was known as Ancient Greek : ἄλκη, romanized: álkē and Latin : alces, words probably borrowed from a Germanic language or another language of northern Europe. By the 8th century, during the Early Middle Ages, the moose was known as Old English : elch, elh, eolh, derived from the Proto-Germanic: *elho-, *elhon- and possibly connected with the Old Norse : elgr. [6] Later, the species became known in Middle English as elk, elcke, or elke, appearing in the Latinized form alke, with the spelling alce borrowed directly from Latin: alces. [6] [7] Noting that elk "is not the normal phonetic representative" of the Old English elch, the Oxford English Dictionary derives elk from Middle High German : elch, itself from Old High German : elaho. [6] [3]

The American Cervus canadensis was recognized as a relative of the red deer (Cervus elaphus) of Europe, and so Cervus canadensis were referred to as "red deer". Richard Hakluyt refers to North America as a "lande ... full of many beastes, as redd dere" [8] in his 1584 Discourse Concerning Western Planting . Similarly, John Smith's 1616 A Description of New England referred to red deer. Sir William Talbot's 1672 English translation of John Lederer's Latin Discoveries likewise called the species "red deer", but noted in parentheses that they were "for their unusual largeness improperly termed Elks by ignorant people". Both Thomas Jefferson's 1785 Notes on the State of Virginia and David Bailie Warden's 1816 Statistical, Political, and Historical Account of the United States used "red deer" to refer to Cervus canadensis. [9]


Male elk in snow at Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA. Elk Bull in Yellowstone.jpg
Male elk in snow at Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA.
Elk crossing Opal Terrace at Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone. OPAL TERRACE with elks.jpg
Elk crossing Opal Terrace at Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone.
Bull elk in late autumn, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada. Elk-Wapiti - Banff.jpg
Bull elk in late autumn, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada.
Sparring bull elk in Banff National Park, Canada. Sparring Elks.jpg
Sparring bull elk in Banff National Park, Canada.

Members of the genus Cervus (and hence early relatives or possible ancestors of the elk) first appear in the fossil record 25 million years ago, during the Oligocene in Eurasia, but do not appear in the North American fossil record until the early Miocene. [10] The extinct Irish elk (Megaloceros) was not a member of the genus Cervus but rather the largest member of the wider deer family (Cervidae) known from the fossil record. [11]

Until recently, red deer and elk were considered to be one species, Cervus elaphus, [5] [12] with over a dozen subspecies. But mitochondrial DNA studies conducted in 2004 on hundreds of samples from red deer and elk subspecies and other species of the Cervus deer family, strongly indicate that elk, or wapiti, should be a distinct species, namely Cervus canadensis. [13] DNA evidence validates that elk are more closely related to Thorold's deer and even sika deer than they are to the red deer. [13]

Elk and red deer produce fertile offspring in captivity, and the two species have freely inter-bred in New Zealand's Fiordland National Park. The cross-bred animals have resulted in the disappearance of virtually all pure elk blood from the area. [14] Key morphological differences that distinguish C. canadensis from C. elaphus are the former's wider rump patch and paler-hued antlers. [15]


There are numerous subspecies of elk described, with six from North America and four from Asia, although some taxonomists consider them different ecotypes or races of the same species (adapted to local environments through minor changes in appearance and behavior). Populations vary in antler shape and size, body size, coloration and mating behavior. DNA investigations of the Eurasian subspecies revealed that phenotypic variation in antlers, mane and rump patch development are based on "climatic-related lifestyle factors". [15] Of the six subspecies of elk known to have inhabited North America in historical times, four remain, including the Roosevelt (C. canadensis roosevelti), Tule (C. c. nannodes), Manitoban (C. c. manitobensis) and Rocky Mountain elk (C. c. nelsoni). [16] The eastern elk (C. c. canadensis) and Merriam's elk (C. c. merriami) subspecies have been extinct for at least a century. [17] [18]

Four subspecies described from the Asian continent include the Altai wapiti (C. c. sibiricus) and the Tianshan wapiti (C. c. songaricus). Two distinct subspecies found in China, Mongolia, the Korean Peninsula [19] and Siberia are the Manchurian wapiti (C. c. xanthopygus) and the Alashan wapiti (C. c. alashanicus). The Manchurian subspecies is darker, and more reddish, in coloration than other populations. The Alashan wapiti of northern Central China is the smallest of all the subspecies, has the lightest coloration, and is one of the least-studied. [14]

Recent DNA analyses suggest that there are no more than three or four total subspecies of elk. All American forms, aside from possibly the Tule and the Roosevelt's elk, seem to belong to one subspecies—Cervus c. canadensis; even the Siberian elk (C. c. sibiricus) is, more or less, physically identical to the American forms, and thus may belong to this subspecies, too. However, the Manchurian wapiti (C. c. xanthopygus) is clearly distinct from the Siberian forms, but not distinguishable from the Alashan wapiti. The Chinese forms (the Sichuan deer, Kansu red deer, and Tibetan red deer) also belong to the wapiti, and were not distinguishable from each other by mitochondrial DNA studies. [13] These Chinese subspecies are sometimes treated as a distinct species, namely the Central Asian red deer (Cervus hanglu), which also includes the Kashmir stag. [20]


A herd of Roosevelt elk in California. RooseveltElk 5061t.JPG
A herd of Roosevelt elk in California.

Elk have thick bodies with slender legs and short tails. They have a shoulder height of 0.75–1.5 m (2 ft 6 in – 4 ft 11 in) with a nose-to-tail length of 1.6–2.7 m (5 ft 3 in – 8 ft 10 in). Males are larger and weigh 178–497 kg (392–1,096 lb) while females weigh 171–292 kg (377–644 lb). [21] The largest of the subspecies is the Roosevelt elk (C. c. roosevelti), found west of the Cascade Range in the U.S. states of California, Oregon and Washington, and in the Canadian province of British Columbia. Roosevelt elk have been introduced into Alaska, where the largest males are estimated to weigh up to 600 kg (1,300 lb). [22] More typically, male Roosevelt elk weigh around 318 to 499 kg (701 to 1,100 lb), while females weigh 261 to 283 kg (575 to 624 lb). [23] Male tule elk weigh 204–318 kg (450–701 lb) while females weigh 170–191 kg (375–421 lb). [24] The whole weights of adult male Manitoban elk range from 288 to 478 kilograms (635 to 1,054 lb). Females have a mean weight of 275 kilograms (606 lb). [25] The elk is the second largest extant species of deer, after the moose. [26]

Antlers are made of bone, which can grow at a rate of 2.5 centimeters (0.98 in) per day. While actively growing, a soft layer of highly vascularized skin known as velvet covers and protects them. This is shed in the summer when the antlers have fully developed. [27] Bull elk typically have around six tines on each antler. The Siberian and North American elk carry the largest antlers while the Altai wapiti has the smallest. [14] Roosevelt bull antlers can weigh 18 kg (40 lb). [27] The formation and retention of antlers are testosterone-driven. [28] In late winter and early spring, the testosterone level drops, which causes the antlers to shed. [29]

Rocky Mountain elk Elks in yellowstone national park.jpg
Rocky Mountain elk

During the fall, elk grow a thicker coat of hair, which helps to insulate them during the winter. [30] Both male and female North American elk grow thin neck manes; females of other subspecies may not. [31] :37 By early summer, the heavy winter coat has been shed. Elk are known to rub against trees and other objects to help remove hair from their bodies. All elk have small and clearly defined rump patches with short tails. They have different coloration based on the seasons and types of habitats, with gray or lighter coloration prevalent in the winter and a more reddish, darker coat in the summer. Subspecies living in arid climates tend to have lighter colored coats than do those living in forests. [30] Most have lighter yellow-brown to orange-brown coats in contrast to dark brown hair on the head, neck, and legs during the summer. Forest-adapted Manchurian and Alashan wapitis have red or reddish-brown coats with less contrast between the body coat and the rest of the body during the summer months. Calves are born spotted, as is common with many deer species, and lose them by the end of summer. Adult Manchurian wapiti may retain a few orange spots on the back of their summer coats until they are older. This characteristic has also been observed in the forest-adapted European red deer. [14]

Behavior and ecology

Elk bulls sparring Boys Will Be Boys (8595525930).jpg
Elk bulls sparring

Elk are among the most gregarious deer species. [31] :52 During the summer group size can reach 400 individuals. [21] For most of the year, adult males and females are segregated into different herds. Female herds are larger while bulls form small groups and may even travel alone. Young bulls may associate with older bulls or female groups. Male and female herds come together during the mating season, which may begin in late August. [31] :75,82 Males try to intimidate rivals by vocalizing and displaying with their antlers. [31] :109 If neither bull backs down, they engage in antler wrestling, sometimes sustaining serious injuries. [32]

Distribution and status

Bull elk bugling during the rut Bull elk bugling during the fall mating season.jpg
Bull elk bugling during the rut

The elk ranges from central Asia through to Siberia and east Asia and in North America. They can be found in open deciduous woodlands, boreal forests, upland moors, mountainous areas and grasslands. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) list the species as least-concern species. [1] The habitat of Siberian elk in Asia is similar to that of the Rocky Mountain subspecies in North America. During the Late Pleistocene their range was much more extensive, being distributed across Eurasia, with remains being found as far west as France. These populations are most closely related to modern Asian populations of the elk. Their range collapsed at the start of the Holocene, possibly because they were specialized to cold periglacial tundra-steppe habitat. When this environment was replaced largely by closed forest the red deer might have outcompeted the elk. Relictual populations survived into the early Holocene (until around 3000 years ago) in southern Sweden and the Alps, where the environment remained favorable. [75]

Introductions and reintroductions

Bull elk on a captive range in Nebraska. These elk, originally from Rocky Mountain herds, exhibit modified behavior due to having been held in captivity, under less selective pressure Wapiti.Nebraska.JPG
Bull elk on a captive range in Nebraska. These elk, originally from Rocky Mountain herds, exhibit modified behavior due to having been held in captivity, under less selective pressure

As of 2014, population figures for all North American elk subspecies were around one million. Prior to the European colonization of North America, there were an estimated 10 million on the continent. [76]

There are many past and ongoing examples of reintroduction into areas of the US. Elk were reintroduced in Michigan in 1918 after going extinct there in 1875. [77] The Rocky Mountain elk subspecies was reintroduced by hunter-conservation organizations into the Appalachian region of the U.S. where the now extinct eastern elk once lived. [78] They were reintroduced to Pennsylvania beginning in 1913 and throughout the mid-20th Century, and now remain at a stable population of approximately 1,400 individuals. [79] [80] [81] Since the late 1990s, they were reintroduced and recolonized in the states of Wisconsin, [82] Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia and West Virginia. [83] In the state of Kentucky, the elk population in 2022 had increased to over 15,000 animals. [84] In 2016, a male elk, likely from the Smoky Mountains population, was sighted in South Carolina for the first time in nearly 300 years. [85] Once locally extinct, dispersing elk are now regularly spotted in Iowa, although a wild population has not yet established. [86] Since 2015, elk have also been reintroduced in a number of other states, including Missouri, [87] and introduced to the islands of Etolin and Afognak in Alaska. [88] Reintroduction of the elk into Ontario began in the early 20th century and is ongoing with limited success. [89]

Elk and red deer were introduced to Argentina in the early 20th century. [90] There they are now considered an invasive species, encroaching on Argentinian ecosystems where they compete for food with the indigenous Chilean huemul and other herbivores. [91] This negative impact on native animal species has led the IUCN to identify the elk as one of the world's 100 worst invaders. [92]

The introduction of deer to New Zealand began in the middle of the 19th century, and current populations are primarily European red deer, with only 15 percent being elk. [93] In 1905 18 American wapiti were released in George Sound in the Fiordland National Park. [94] In 1949 the New Zealand American Fiordland Expedition was undertaken to study the descendants of this release. [94] There is significant hybridization of elk with red deer. [95] These deer have had an adverse impact on forest regeneration of some plant species, as they consume more palatable species, which are replaced with those that are less favored by the elk. The long-term impact will be an alteration of the types of plants and trees found, and in other animal and plant species dependent upon them. [96] As in Chile and Argentina, the IUCN has declared that red deer and elk populations in New Zealand are an invasive species. [92]

Estimated number of elk per U.S. state

StateEstimated Number of Elk
Flag of Arizona.svg  Arizona 35,000 [97]
Flag of Arkansas.svg  Arkansas 450 [98]
Flag of California.svg  California 12,500 [99]
Flag of Colorado.svg  Colorado 280,000 [100]
Flag of Idaho.svg  Idaho 120,000 [101]
Flag of Kansas.svg  Kansas 175 - 350 [102]
Flag of Kentucky.svg  Kentucky 15,876 [103]
Flag of Michigan.svg  Michigan 1,196 [104]
Flag of Minnesota.svg  Minnesota 126 [105]
Flag of Missouri.svg  Missouri 200 [106]
Flag of Montana.svg  Montana 141,785 [107]
Flag of Nevada.svg  Nevada 12,500 [108]
Flag of New Mexico.svg  New Mexico 70,000 - 90,000 [109]
Flag of North Carolina.svg  North Carolina 150 - 200 [110]
Flag of North Dakota.svg  North Dakota 700 [111] [112]
Flag of Oklahoma.svg  Oklahoma 5,000 [113]
Flag of Oregon.svg  Oregon 133,000 [114] [115]
Flag of Pennsylvania.svg  Pennsylvania 1,400 [116]
Flag of South Dakota.svg  South Dakota 6,000 [117]
Flag of Tennessee.svg  Tennessee 400 [118]
Flag of Texas.svg  Texas 1,600 [119]
Flag of Utah.svg  Utah 81,000 [120]
Flag of Virginia.svg  Virginia 250 [121]
Flag of Washington.svg  Washington 60,000 [122]
Flag of West Virginia.svg  West Virginia 80 [123]
Flag of Wisconsin.svg  Wisconsin 400 [124]
Flag of Wyoming.svg  Wyoming 110,200 [125]

Cultural references

A Kiowa couple. The woman on the right is wearing an elk tooth dress. William S. Soule - Eonah-pah and Wife.jpg
A Kiowa couple. The woman on the right is wearing an elk tooth dress.

Elk have played an important role in the cultural history of a number of peoples. Neolithic petroglyphs from Asia depict antler-less female elk, which have been interpreted as symbolizing life and sustenance. They were also frequently overlaid with boats and associated with rivers, suggesting they also represented paths to the underworld. [126] Petroglyphs of elk were carved into cliffs by the Ancestral Puebloans of the southwestern U.S. hundreds of years ago. [127] The elk was of particular importance to the Lakota and played a spiritual role in their society. The male elk was admired for its ability to attract mates, and Lakota men will play a courting flute imitating a bugling elk to attract women. Men used elks' antlers as love charms and wore clothes decorated with elk images. [128]

The Rocky Mountain elk is the official state animal for Utah. [129] An image of an elk and a moose appear on the state seal and flag of Michigan. [130] The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks (B.P.O.E.) chose the elk as its namesake because a number of its attributes seemed appropriate for cultivation by members of the fraternity. [131] Jewel-encrusted, gold-mounted elk teeth are prized possessions of many members of the B.P.O.E. [132]

Commercial uses

A cut of elk meat, showing the low fat content Elk steak.jpg
A cut of elk meat, showing the low fat content

Although breakdown figures for each game species are not available in the 2006 National Survey from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, hunting of wild elk is most likely the primary economic impact. [133]

While elk are not generally harvested for meat production on a large scale, some restaurants offer the meat as a specialty item and it is also available in some grocery stores. The meat has a taste somewhere between beef and venison and is higher in protein and lower in fat and cholesterol than beef, pork, and chicken. [134] Elk meat is a good source of iron, phosphorus and zinc. [135]

A male elk can produce 10 to 11 kilograms (22 to 24 lb) of antler velvet annually and on ranches in the United States, Canada and New Zealand, it is collected and sold to markets in East Asia, where it is used in medicine. Some cultures consider antler velvet to be an aphrodisiac. [67] However, consuming velvet from elk in North America may be risky since velvet from animals infected with chronic wasting disease may contain prions that could result in a human getting variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease. [136]

Antlers are also used in artwork, furniture and other novelty items. All Asian subspecies, along with other deer, have been raised for their antlers in central and eastern Asia by Han Chinese, Turkic peoples, Tungusic peoples, Mongolians, and Koreans. Elk farms are relatively common in North America and New Zealand. [93] Native Americans have used elk hides for tepee covering, clothing and footwear. [137] [138]

Since 1967, the Boy Scouts of America have assisted employees at the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming by collecting the antlers which are shed each winter. They are then auctioned, with 80% of the proceeds returned to the refuge. In 2010, 2,520 kilograms (5,560 lb) of antlers were auctioned, which brought in over $46,000. [139]

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Hunting is a popular recreational pursuit and a tourist activity in New Zealand with numerous books and magazines published on the topic. Unlike most other developed countries with a hunting tradition, there are no bag-limits or seasons for hunting large game in New Zealand. Hunting in national parks is a permitted activity. The wide variety of game animals and the limited restrictions means hunting is a popular pastime which has resulted in a high level of firearms ownership among civilians.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Alaska moose</span> Subspecies of deer

The Alaska moose, or Alaskan moose in Alaska, or giant moose and Yukon moose in Canada, is a subspecies of moose that ranges from Alaska to western Yukon. The Alaska moose is the largest subspecies of moose. Alaska moose inhabit boreal forests and mixed deciduous forests throughout most of Alaska and most of Western Yukon. Like all moose subspecies, the Alaska moose is usually solitary but sometimes will form small herds. Typically, they only come into contact with other moose for mating or competition for mates. Males and females select different home ranges during different seasons. This leads to spatial segregation throughout much of the year. While males and females are spatially separate the habitat that they occupy is not significantly different. During mating season, in autumn and winter, male Alaska moose become very aggressive and prone to attacking when startled.


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