Cervus elaphuselk(Also: red deer; wapiti)

Geographic Range

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.

  • Range elevation
    3000 (high) m
    9842.52 (high) ft

Physical Description

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.

  • Range mass
    67 to 497 kg
    147.58 to 1094.71 lb
  • Average mass
    154.2 kg
    339.65 lb
  • Range length
    1.6 to 2.7 m
    5.25 to 8.86 ft
  • Average basal metabolic rate
    112.43 W


Shortly before the fall rut, in late September and early October, male elk lose the velvet on their antlers and begin to compete for access to females. 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, their status, and attract females through bugling. Fights between dominant males and intruders can be intense and result in injury, exhaustion, or death. Harems are usually made up of 1 bull and 6 females with their yearling calves and are seasonal.

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.

  • Breeding interval
    Breeding occurs each year when nutrition is adequate.
  • Breeding season
    Breeding occurs in late September or early October.
  • Range number of offspring
    2 (high)
  • Average number of offspring
  • Average number of offspring
  • Range gestation period
    8 to 8.73 months
  • Average weaning age
    2 months
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    16 months
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    Sex: female
    852 days
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    16 (low) months

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.

  • Parental Investment
  • precocial
  • pre-fertilization
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • protecting
      • female


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.

Home Range

Elk have a home range of approximately 600 square miles.

Communication and Perception

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.

Food Habits

Elk are browsers feeding on grasses, sedges, and forbs 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 and therefore regurgitate their food and remasticate to aid in digestion. This is also known as chewing cud.

  • Plant Foods
  • leaves
  • roots and tubers
  • wood, bark, or stems
  • bryophytes
  • lichens
  • Other Foods
  • fungus


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.

Ecosystem Roles

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.

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

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.

  • Positive Impacts
  • food
  • body parts are source of valuable material
  • ecotourism

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Elk are considered pests by many farmers. Overbrowsing can cause damage to valued trees and agricultural crops. Elk may also be implicated in the spread of some diseases to livestock, such as bovine tuberculosis and meningeal worms.

Conservation Status

Elk have no special conservation status, but excessive hunting and habitat modification have lead to declines in their natural distribution and abundance. Most populations of Cervus elaphus were nearly extirpated in the 19th century. They were extirpated from New York by 1847, Pennsylvania by 1867, Ohio by 1838, and Indiana by 1830. The eastern subspecies Cervus elaphus canadensis is now extinct. Recently, conservation measures by private citizens and Departments of Natural Resources have led to large increases in elk populations, putting C. elaphus out of danger. Elk are generally subject to limited, legal sport hunting and are farmed for meat in some western states.

Other Comments

In the western United States elk can carry and contract chronic wasting disease, a spongiform encephalopathy similar to bovine spongiform encephalopathy.


Tanya Dewey (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Rachel Lesley Senseman (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.



Living in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, New Guinea and associated islands.

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living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

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living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

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living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

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uses sound to communicate


living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

causes or carries domestic animal disease

either directly causes, or indirectly transmits, a disease to a domestic animal


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


active at dawn and dusk


humans benefit economically by promoting tourism that focuses on the appreciation of natural areas or animals. Ecotourism implies that there are existing programs that profit from the appreciation of natural areas or animals.


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.


an animal that mainly eats leaves.


A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.


forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.


An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.


a distribution that more or less circles the Arctic, so occurring in both the Nearctic and Palearctic biogeographic regions.

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Found in northern North America and northern Europe or Asia.


referring to animal species that have been transported to and established populations in regions outside of their natural range, usually through human action.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


having more than one female as a mate at one time


Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

sexual ornamentation

one of the sexes (usually males) has special physical structures used in courting the other sex or fighting the same sex. For example: antlers, elongated tails, special spurs.


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


living in residential areas on the outskirts of large cities or towns.


uses touch to communicate


Coniferous or boreal forest, located in a band across northern North America, Europe, and Asia. This terrestrial biome also occurs at high elevations. Long, cold winters and short, wet summers. Few species of trees are present; these are primarily conifers that grow in dense stands with little undergrowth. Some deciduous trees also may be present.


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.


A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.


uses sight to communicate


reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.

young precocial

young are relatively well-developed when born


Baker, R. H. 1983. Michigan Mammals. Michigan State University Press. East Lansing, MI. 566-577.

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.