Friday, August 9, 2013

Elk: The Animal Whose Name Actually Means Moose

The majestic elk (Cervus canadensis) is one of the largest species of Cervidae, or deer family, in the world. Natively found in North America and eastern Asia, their great adaptability has lead them to threaten some endemic species and ecosystems in countries they have been introduced in, including Australia, Argentina and New Zealand. There are currently one overall subspecies (Cervus canadensis canadensis) found in North America, with eight groupings, two of which are extinct. Those groupings include:
  • Roosevelt Elk
  • Tule Elk
  • Manitoban Elk
  • Rocky Mountain Elk
  • Altai Wapiti Elk
  • Tianshan Wapiti
  • Eastern Elk (extinct)
  • Merriam's Elk (extinct)
Male elk in Rocky Mountain National Park
In North America, their historical range covered most of the United State and Canada, but several subspecies went extinct at least 100 years ago due to possible over hunting and habitat fragmentation, resulting in a modern range now limited to mainly the mountains of the west. Of all North American subspecies, there is an estimated number of over 1 million individuals. Prior to European colonization, there was an estimated 10 million individuals.

The Rocky Mountain elk subspecies has successfully been reintroduced in small populations in the Appalachian region of the United States, including North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky. Those populations have now migrated and expanded to patches in Virginia and West Virginia. Elk have also been reintroduced in small populations to Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and two islands in Alaska.

Male elk in Rocky Mountain National Park in late July. Notice the soft, velvet layer on the antlers.

Male and females show sexual dimorphism; where males grow antlers, females lack. Males start growing their antlers in the spring and shed them each winter. While actively growing - as much as 2.5 centimeters per day - antlers are covered with a protected velvet, a layer of vascularised skin. The velvet is shed after the antlers are fully developed, usually towards the end of summer. Antler retention is actually connected to testosterone levels in male elk. When testosterone levels drop after the breeding season, this triggers the shedding of antlers in late fall/early winter.

Three male elk grazing in an alpine meadow located in Rocky Mountain National Park

Adult elk usually roam in single-sex groups till mating season. Formally know as a rut, the mating season occurs in late summer through fall, where mature males (bulls) perform some intense and... interesting... behavior. Bulls will join female (cow) groups and will try to defend and ward off other males. Opponents will bellow bugle calls (see below) and parallel one another, basically sizing the other up. If a bull doesn't back down, they will lock antlers, which can sometimes lead to serious injury. To attract females, bulls are known to dig holes in the ground, urinate is said holes, then roll in said urine. This urine soaks hair gives them a distinct oder which attracts cows. Bugling is also often associated to attracting females, where they gravitate towards males that bugle the loudest, longest and most often.

Elk's bugle call

Interesting Tid-bits

  • Elks migrate with the changing of seasons, moving from higher country in warmer weather, to lower elevations during colder months.
  • Elk are ruminants, meaning they have a four-chambered stomach. Elk will graze on grasses and shrubs, regurgitate the semi-digested plant matter, known as cud, and chew it again.
  • The name elk actually is the early European name for moose, which comes from Old Norse elgr and German elch, which all refer to moose. When early European settlers came to the Americas, they thought the animal resembled a moose. Elk are not moose, but the name is still used in North America, while the name elk is still used in Eurasia for the moose (confusing... I know).
  • Elk are also known waapiti, or wapiti, meaning white-rump in Shawnee and Cree. To try and help with the whole elk-moose fiasco, the name is mostly used for the Asian subspecies, since elk in Eurasia means moose! What a pain in my waatipi.
  • The extinct Irish elk is actually not a member of the genus Cervus, therefore are technically not an elk at all, in modern terms.
  • The gestation period for young is typically 240 to 262 days and offspring are born at the ripe weight of 33-35 pounds. Calves are actually as large as an adult white-tailed deer by the time they are six months old!
  • Elk are a highly sought after game species, prized for its lean and flavorful meat.

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