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Cervus canadensis

Last updated: June 26, 2022
Verified by: IMP

Adult males can jump eight feet vertically

Elk Scientific Classification

Scientific Name
Cervus canadensis

Read our Complete Guide to Classification of Animals.

Elk Conservation Status

Elk Locations

Elk Locations

Elk Facts

Baby ground-dwelling birds
Name Of Young
Group Behavior
  • Herd
Fun Fact
Adult males can jump eight feet vertically
Estimated Population Size
Biggest Threat
Diseases, parasites
Most Distinctive Feature
Large male antlers and bugling sound
Other Name(s)
Wapiti, red deer
Gestation Period
240-262 days
Litter Size
Mountain meadows, forests, forest edges
Common Name
Elk, wapiti
Number Of Species
North America, Central Asia, East Asia
Herd or solitary

Elk Physical Characteristics

  • Brown
Skin Type
Top Speed
40 mph
10-15 years in the wild, 20 years in captivity
171-600kg (377-1,300lbs)
0.75-1.5m (2ft 6in-4ft 11in)
1.6-2.7m (5ft 3in-8ft 10in)
Age of Sexual Maturity
16 months
Age of Weaning
2 months

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The elk or wapiti is one of the largest land-dwelling animals in North America, Central, and East Asia, where it lives in mountain meadows, forests, and forest edges.

It is also the largest wild herbivore, or cervid, second only to the moose. The Roosevelt’s elk, Tule elk, Rocky Mountain elk, and the Manitoban elk are four of the six North American subspecies that still exist in the wild, while the Eastern and the Merriam’s Easter elk subspecies are extinct. Today, elk is popular as a hunting game, while its meat is a specialty in some restaurants and stores and its antlers are used in novelty items and traditional East Asian medicine. Although some herds suffer from infectious disease, the general population is increasing and listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List.

5 Incredible Elk Facts!

  • The male bugling sound is made from simultaneously roaring and whistling, as evidenced by their moving both their lips and their nostrils.
  • Elk consume an average of 9.1kg (20lbs) of vegetation every day.
  • Adult males (bulls) can run up to 40mph.
  • The elk is the unofficial mascot of Estes Park, Colorado, being one of the most often spotted wildlife there.
  • Wapiti (waapiti) is a word meaning “white rump” in Shawnee and Cree.

You can check out more incredible facts about elk.

Elk Scientific Name

These animals are often confused with the moose, not only because they look similar but because the moose (scientific name Alces alces or Cervus alces) is called “elk” in Eurasia. The scientific name of the elk is Cervus canadensis, with C. c. canadensis being the species type and there being 14 subspecies. Although they are both animals in the deer family Cervidae, the elk are in the subfamily Cervinae or Old World Deer, while the moose is in the subfamily Capriolinae (Odocoileinae) or New World deer.

The word “elk” historically had a meaning like “large deer.” English-speaking people in North America in the 17th century were familiar with the elk’s relative the red deer (Cervus elaphus) but not the moose, so they gave the name “elk” to Cervus canadensis, also referred to as “red deer.” Linguistically, the romanized ancient Greek word for the Latin Alces (moose) was álkē, which during the Early Middle Ages in the 8th century was called elch, elh and eolh in Old English. It then became elk, elcke or elke in Middle English or the Latinized alke. The Asian subspecies of elk are sometimes called maral, though the word mainly applies to the Caspian red deer, a red deer subspecies (Cervus elaphus maral).

Types of Elk

There are four subspecies remaining out of the six from North America, these being the Roosevelt’s (C. canadensis roosevelti), Tule (C. canadensis nannodes), Manitoban (C. canadensis manitobensis) and Rocky Mountain elk (C. canadensis nelsoni). Two subspecies, the eastern elk (C. canadensis canadensis) and Merriam’s Easter elk (C. canadensis merriami) have been extinct for over a century.

North American elk

  • C. c. roosevelti (Roosevelt’s elk)
  • C. c. nannodes (Tule elk)
  • C. c. manitobensis (Manitoban elk)
  • C. c. nelsoni (Rocky Mountain elk)
  • C. c. canadensis (Eastern elk; extinct)
  • C. c. merriami (Merriam’s Easter elk; extinct)

Eastern elk (wapiti)

  • C. c. sibiricus (Altai wapiti)
  • C. c. songaricus (Tian Shan wapiti)
  • C. c. xanthopygus (Manchurian wapiti)
  • C. c. alashanicus (Alashan wapiti)

Central Asian red deer (Southern group)

  • C. c. macneilli (Sichuan deer)
  • C. c. kansuensis (Kansu red deer)
  • C. c. wallichii (Tibetan red deer)
  • C. c. hanglu (Kashmir stag)

Recent DNA studies indicate there are really no more than three or four subspecies, with the American forms and even the Siberian elk (C. canadensis sibiricus) all seeming to belong to one subspecies (C. canadensis canadensis). The Chinese subspecies are all treated as one distinct species.

Elk Appearance

The 14 subspecies are all thought to be variations of the same species with slight differences in appearance and behavior known as climate-related lifestyle factors. All have thick bodies with short tails, small and defined rump patches, and slender legs. They have a shoulder height of 0.75-1.5m (2ft 6in-4ft 11in) with a nose-to-tail length of 1.6-2.7m (5ft 3in-8ft 10in). Males weigh 178-497kg (392-1,096lbs) while females weigh 171-292kg (377-644lbs).

The exception is the largest subspecies, Roosevelt’s elk, where the largest males can weigh up to 600kg (1,300lbs) but on average 318-499kg (701-1,100lbs) with females weighing 261-283kg (575-624lbs). Tule elk also have a different weight, with males weighing 204-318kg (450-701lbs) and females weighing 170-191kg (375-421lbs). All elk grow a thick winter coat during the fall, but only male and female North American elk have thin neck manes.

All male animals have antlers that are made of bone and grow 2.5cm a day, during which a layer of velvet covers them. They shed the velvet covering in the summer after the antlers are done developing. Since testosterone drives the formation of antlers, when the testosterone level drops in late winter and early spring, the antlers shed. Each antler has six tines. North American and Siberian elk both have the largest antlers and the Altai wapiti has the smallest, with Roosevelt’s antlers weighing 18kg (40lbs).

Elk Behavior

Males are called bulls and female elk are called cows. These animals are some of the most social deer species, with group sizes during the summer reaching up to 400 individuals. Adult males and females segregate themselves into different herds during most of the year, with female herds being larger and males creating small groups or being solitary. Young bulls live in female herds or with older, less aggressive bulls.

During mating season, bulls engage in rutting behavior and compete for females which they include in harems of 20 or more cows. They try to intimidate rivals with bugling and antler displays, continuing on with antler wrestling. They may also dig wallows or holes in the ground to urinate in and roll themselves, giving them a unique smell to attract cows. Bulls also defend their harem from other males and predators and herd them when they stray from the harem.

The bulls’ vocalization, called bugling, can reach 4000 Hz. They do it by blowing air from the opening between the vocal folds (the glottis) through the nostrils. They can also create deeper pitched sounds of 150 Hz through the larynx.

Elk rub against trees and other objects to shed their winter coats by early summer. Like several deer species, they migrate into higher altitudes in the spring and retreat in the fall, creating summer and winter ranges. They travel up to 169mi (270km) during their longest migration in the continental U.S.

Sparring Elk in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada.
Sparring Elk in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada.

James Gabbert/Shutterstock.com

Elk Habitat

The animal’s native habitat is Eastern Asia and North America but was introduced to Central Asia, New Zealand, and Argentina. It had a far wider habitat range in prehistoric times which included Europe. The species lives in mountain meadows, forests, and forest edges.

Elk Diet

As ruminants, these animals have four-chambered stomachs. But while moose and white-tailed deer are mainly browsers, elk are mainly grazers. They feed in the morning and evening and seek shelter to digest. During winter, they travel to wooded areas for greater availability of food. Their diets are herbivorous, consuming native grasses year-round, tree bark in winter, and tree sprouts and forbs in summer. Each day they eat 9.1kg (20lbs) of vegetation on average.

Elk Predators and Threats

Typical predators of these animals are wolves, coyotes, brown bears, North American black bears, Asiatic black bears, cougars, and Siberian tigers. Coyote packs, brown bears, and black bears are the main predators of elk calves, with brown and black bears being the top predators. The killing of young cows affects population growth than that of bulls or calves. Bulls are weakened by chasing females and fighting other males in late winter or when they have lost their antlers, and so are more likely to be preyed upon by wolves. However, elk can decrease predation by changing to browsing instead of grazing, the main difference being the change from open areas with their heads down to wooded areas with their heads up.

Other threats to these animals are several bacterial infectious diseases and parasites, with some being transmittable to livestock. The main host of the brainworm or meningeal worm (Parelaphostrongylus tenuis) is the white-tailed deer which it does not affect but is fatal for elk. Elk can also consume the same parasite through snails and slugs which are intermediate hosts.

Other fatal parasites are the liver fluke (Fascioloides magna) and the lungworm Dictyocaulus viviparus. The chronic wasting disease is transmitted by prions and affects their brain tissue and can be transmitted through consuming elk antler velvet, which in humans results in the variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease.

A bacterial disease called brucellosis in the U.S. only exists in Yellowstone. It can transmit to domesticated cattle, bison, and horses and cause infertility, abortions, and decreased milk production. In humans, it results in undulant fever and flu-like symptoms which can persist for years. Gastrointestinal parasites include Eimeria sp. and Ostertagia sp. Another disease is elk hoof disease, which is connected to treponeme bacteria and causes hoof deformities leading to extreme lameness.

For humans, elk are also not only a hunting game species but their antlers are often used in traditional Chinese medicine, with antler velvet used as an aphrodisiac to increase well-being and testosterone for both men and women. The meat is available in some restaurants and grocery stores. It is higher in protein, lower in fat and cholesterol, and leaner than chicken, pork, and beef, as well as a good source of zinc, phosphorus, and iron.

Antlers are also used in novelty items such as artwork and furniture, with elk being raised for their antlers by Asian peoples. North America and New Zealand have many elk farms. Native Americans engaged in hunting elk to use their hides for tepee coverings, clothing, and footwear.

Elk Reproduction and Life Cycle

Bulls and cows join each other during the mating season starting in late August and ending in early winter. Bulls make a dozen or more mating attempts during the cows’ short estrus lasting one or two days. Cows typically produce one and occasionally two offspring, which are called calves. Cows reproduce most often when they weigh at least 200kg (440lbs).

The gestation period is 240-262 days and the calves weigh between 15-16kg at birth. They are born with spots that they lose by the end of summer. Cows isolate themselves for birth and until the calf can flee from predators. Calves can join the herd after two weeks and at two months are fully weaned. Before age three, elk leave their birth ranges. Their lifespan is 10-13 and sometimes 15 years in the wild and 20 or more years in captivity.

Elk Population

The population of elk herds in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is about 40,000 individuals. There are 9,000-13,000 elk in the Teton herd, which migrate south from the southern parts of Yellowstone National Park and west from the Shoshone and Bridger-Teton National Forests to spend their winters on the National Elk Refuge. The population of Cervus canadensis is increasing and listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List.

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AZ Animals is a growing team of animals experts, researchers, farmers, conservationists, writers, editors, and — of course — pet owners who have come together to help you better understand the animal kingdom and how we interact.

Elk FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

What’s the difference between elk and reindeer?

There are several important differences between elk and reindeer. Frist, elk are larger. Second, the two primarily live in different habitats, with reindeer surviving in much more northerly climates. Finally, reindeer have long been domesticated while elk are not domesticated.

What does elk taste like?

Its taste is a cross between venison and beef.

What do elk eat?

Native grasses, forbs, shrubs, tree bark, and twigs.

Where do elk live?

Mountain meadows, forests, and forest edges.

Is an elk a moose?

No. Although they look similar and are both members of Cervidae (the deer family), they are in different subfamilies.

Why are elk dangerous?

Elk are dangerous in large part due to the bulls’ antlers which can impale their targets. They are also very heavy. Cows are dangerous during calving season, during which they are unpredictable and erratic, charging and stomping on animals they perceive as a threat.

Do elk eat meat?

They may occasionally eat eggs and baby ground-dwelling birds such as goslings.

Are elk carnivores, herbivores or omnivores?

Elk are herbivores. However, they can also be opportunistic carnivores, which would make them omnivores.

What is the difference between a red stag and an elk?

The most notable difference is their size. Elk are much larger than the average red deer in size and pure mass. While there are some subspecies of red deer that come close (the central Asian red deer, for example), elk are generally larger. Aside from size, elk and red deer don’t share a common range: elk are found in North America, while red stags are found across Europe, North Africa, and some of the middle east. Both species have been introduced to various habitats around the world.

  1. Wikipedia, Available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elk
  2. Rocky Mountain National Park, Available here: https://www.visitestespark.com/blog/post/8-fascinating-facts-about-elk/
  3. Fossil Farms, Available here: https://www.fossilfarms.com/collections/north-american-elk
  4. Animalia, Available here: https://animalia.bio/elk

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