Natural Histories

photograph of a Sunda Pangolin

Elk, Wapiti

Cervus elaphus


Elk are a large species in the deer family, standing about 0.75- 1.5 meters high at the shoulder and 1.6-2.7 meters long. Elk have large ears and a long head.  The males have branching antlers that can grow to be 1.5 meters long. Males are typically ten percent larger than females; males can weigh 178-497 kg while females weigh between 171 and 292 kg. In the winter elk have a thick dark brown coat while in the summer this coat is tan and not as thick. The head, shaggy mane of the neck, belly and legs have darker shades of fur than the rest of the body and the rump is buff colored.


This species once populated most of the Northern Hemisphere from Europe to northern Africa, Asia and North America but their range is now limited as the result of extensive hunting and habitat destruction. North American populations of elk are currently found in the western United States, Canada and into the Eastern Rockies through New Mexico. Some populations can be found in the northern lower peninsula of Michigan. Populations of elk in Europe, called Eurasian elk, can be found in protected and less populated areas. The elk have been introduced into areas such as Argentina, Chile, Australian and New Zealand. This species prefers open woodlands but can be found in coniferous swamps, clear cuts, aspen-hardwood forests and coniferous hardwood forests. They generally avoid dense unbroken forests.

Feeding Behavior and Diet

Elk are browsing herbivores; consuming grasses, sedges and forbs in the summer. This species especially prefers dandelions, aster, hawkweed, violets, clover and mushrooms. During the winter this species consumes woody growth such as pine needles, juniper, red osier dogwood, willow, serviceberry with aspen being a favorite. Elk are ruminant animals, which means they regurgitate their food and re-chew it to aid digestion, this is known as chewing their cud.


The breeding season, called rut, occurs in September through early October. Males compete with other males for access to females by fighting, which may result in injury, exhaustion or death. During rut, dominant males gather harems of about six females which they will defend from other males. Then 240-262 days after mating, females produce one or two offspring. After birth, females and their calves remain alone for several weeks until the calf is capable to join the herd. Calves are nursed by their mother and completely weaned at about 60 days. Elk reach sexual maturity after 16 months, but males do not generally mate until they are a few years old.

Months and Times of Activity

This species is most active during the early morning and late evening. Daytime hours are spent mostly chewing their cuds. This species migrates seasonally to different elevations. During the summer elk migrate to higher elevations and to lower elevations in the winter. During rut males gather harems of about 6 females, which they defend until spring when calves are born. Bulls (males) then form separate summer herds while females and their calves form nursery groups.

Special Features, Stories, Relationships

•    Elk form social matriarchal herds that can have up to 400 individuals and led by a single dominant cow (female).
•    Elk are the noisiest of all cervids; males produce a low bellow or roar known as bulging, females bark, while calves grunt and squeal.
•    The eastern subspecies of elk known as Cervus elaphus canadensis is now extinct due to over hunting.
•    To read legends featuring this animal go to;
•    Children’s book featuring this animal: The Wild Life of ELK by Donna Love


Senseman, R. 2002. "Cervus elaphus" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed November 04, 2014 at