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Elk / Red Deer

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Scientific classificationBinomial nameSubspecies
Red deer
Species:C. elaphus
Cervus elaphus
Linnaeus,, 1758
Red Deer (Cervus elaphus), known as elk or wapiti in North America, are the second largest species of deer in the world, after Alces alces (the moose or, in Europe, elk).

Cervus elaphus has twenty subspecies in Europe, including some on the endangered species list:

  • Bactrian deer (C. e. bactrianus),
  • Barbary deer (C. e. barbarus),
  • Corsican red deer (C. e. corsicanus),
  • Asiatic hangul or Kashmir deer (C. e. hanglu),
  • Isyubra deer/Manchurian red deer/Izubr stag (C. e. xanthopygos),
  • Szechuan red deer or McNeill's red deer (C. e. macneilli),
  • Shou (C. e. affims) and
  • Yarkand deer (C. e. yarkandanseis).
  • Alshansk or Ala-Shan red deer (C. e. alshanicus),
  • Altai red deer (C. e. asiaticus or sibiricus),
  • Balkan red deer (C. e. hippelaphus),
  • Kansu red deer (C. e. kansuensis),
  • Maral (C. e. sibiricus),
  • Norwegian red deer (C. e. atlanticus),
  • Scottish red deer (C. e. scoticus),
  • Shingielt red deer (C. e. wachei),
  • Spanish red deer (C. e. hispanicus),
  • Swedish red deer (C. e. elaphus),
  • Tien-Shan red deer (C. e. songaricus), and
  • Wallich's deer (C. e. Wallichii).
Four of six subspecies of elk in North America survive, with an estimated population of about ten million:

  • Rocky Mountain elk or Yellowstone elk (C. e. nelsoni),
  • Manitoba elk (C. e. manatobensis),
  • Roosevelt elk or Olympic elk (C. e. roosevelti), and
  • Tule elk (C. e. nannodes) still survive.
The Eastern elk (C. e. canadensis) and Merriam's elk (C. e. merriami) are considered extinct.

In Europe

The red deer is Britain's largest native land mammal, and can reach 1.5m (5 ft) at the shoulder.

Apart from man, bears, wolves and lynxes prey on red deer in Europe, though all of these natural predators are extinct in Britain.


Red Deer first appear in fossil records around 13 million years ago in Eurasia.

For centuries, the wild deer of Britain were reserved exclusively for royalty to hunt. William I of England introduced the death penalty for killing a deer, and a sentence of maiming for attempting to kill a deer. These harsh penalties were abolished during the reign of Henry III, although deer were still preserved by law for the sport of the monarch until the 19th century.

In North America

Elk (also known as Wapiti, a Shawnee name meaning 'white rump') are an Old World deer species that originated in Eurasia and spread to North America, crossing the Bering Land Bridge during the ice age. North American elk were once considered a separate species, and the Eurasian red deer another species. Scientists now consider the North American Elk and Eurasian red deer to be the same, though distinctions between the two live in in the language. European red deer will interbreed with American elk, when penned together, and the offspring are fertile.

Elk weigh 230 to 450 kg (500 to 1,000 lbs.) and stand 0.75-1.5 m (2.5-5 ft.) high at the shoulder. Their antlers usually measure 1 to 1.5 m across, tip to tip. Males often weigh twice as much as females.

North American elk are the largest of the Red Deer, similar in size to, or slightly larger than, the Russian Maral. The American elk terminology is different from the European, as the males are called bulls, the females are called cows, and the offspring are calves, rather than stags, hinds, and fawns, respectively. The vocal apparatus and mating call of the elk is also different from that of the Red Deer, in that the elk "bugle" as opposed to "roaring". This is an adaptation to the more open (less thickly wooded) environment of the elk, allowing high-pitched sounds to travel further.

The current elk population of the United States is estimated to be about one-tenth of the historic level. The population along with most other North American game animals reached a low point around 1900. However populations have rebounded with controls on hunting. There were estimated to be 782,500 elk in North America in 1989. About 72,000 then lived in Canada. Some 20,000 are in ranches where they are raised for meat, antlers, or for hunting.

One of the most important uses of farmed or ranched elk is production of Velvet antler. Most elk live in the west, especially the Rocky Mountain region. Only 3,500 elk live in the wild in the United States east of the Mississippi River and that population is spread over seven states. The population is similarly small in eastern Canada. However, both areas have in recent years experienced a steady population growth and even dispersal into areas that the elk were not originally transplanted to.

Cultural aspects

The elk is an important totem animal to many American Indian tribes. Among the Oto people Elk is described as cross-dressing in several origin legends and is considered to be the original two-spirit; consequently, two-spirits in this culture always belong to the Elk clan. Black Elk is the name of a famous Lakota shaman.


Elk do not appear in the North American fossil records until about 120,000 years ago, when they crossed the Bering land bridge. Once on the North American continent they moved south and east. Around 70,000 years ago they were isolated into four different populations. One of these was found in the Alaska / Yukon region, one in the Washington / Oregon coastal region, another in western California, and the largest population east of the Cascade Mountains and the Sierra Nevada, extending to the Appalachian Mountains and into southern Canada and northern Mexico.

With the arrival of the Europeans to North America and the migration of man toward the west came the need for food and the hunting of what seemed like unlimited game, mainly buffalo and wapati. Hunting for meat progressed into sport hunting and the wanton slaughter and extinction of the Eastern elk, and the near extinction of the Rocky Mountain elk. Merriam's elk eventually succumbed to extinction after hunting brought the numbers below viable breeding populations. In the early 1900s concerned sportsmen foresaw the eventual demise of many game animals and sought, and implemented, hunting seasons and limits, which saved many species which would have otherwise perished.

U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt made a gift of elk to New Zealand, where they were released into the southwestern part of the South Island.

North American subspecies

Of the six North American subspecies of elk, two are extinct: the Eastern elk (through hunting, habitat loss and human settlement), and the southwestern or Merriam's elk (through hunting and increased desertification). A population of Merriam's elk existed in the Guadalupe Mountains of Texas (present herds of elk in the mountains of Texas were released in 1928 from North Dakota). Of the Eastern elk, the last individual in eastern Tennessee was shot in 1849. The last free elk in Iowa were recorded in 1871.

Roosevelt Elk on Redwood Creek gravel bar
Roosevelt Elk on Redwood Creek gravel bar
The Washington / Oregon population later evolved into two different subspecies, the Olympic elk of southwestern British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and northwestern California; and the Tule elk of central California. As the Wisconsin Glacial age ended around 10,000 years ago, a population of elk was isolated from the large eastern population and became the now extinct Merriam’s Elk of Mexico and the southwestern United States. As the Great Plains evolved the remainder of the eastern populations became separated again. One of these populations may have evolved with the Great Plains to become the Manitoba Elk. At the same time the eastern population was separating into two more groups, those of the eastern deciduous forests became the now extinct Eastern Elk; those of the western coniferous forests became the Rocky Mountain Elk. These six subspecies inhabited most of North America when the Europeans first arrived.

According to the Cervid researcher Dr. Valerius Geist, the difference in these subspecies is a result of their environment, the genetic difference being minute. Because of this he says they will all look alike after a few generations if they are kept in captivity under similar conditions. He maintains that while crossbreeding does produce hybrid vigor, in which the offspring are larger than either parent, hybrid vigor lasts for only a few generations.


One of the largest North American game animals, they live in open forest and near forest edges in similar environment as deer. In mountain regions, they are known for living in rugged high elevations during the summer, and in winter they gather in lower areas with more shelter.

Formerly widespread throughout Siberia and North America, in taiga, temperate forests and grassland, elk are found throughout North America, especially in Rocky Mountain region. Western elk have been brought to several states east of the Mississippi River including the Appalachian area where the now extinct subspecies Eastern elk Cervus elaphus canadensis once lived, most commonly Rocky Mountain or Manitoban elk because of their similar habits and size. In recent years the elk have dispersed steadily from Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee into neighboring areas like Virginia and West Virginia and these herds appear to be growing slowly but steadily in population.

Rocky Mountain Elk

Contrary to popular belief, the Rocky Mountain elk was not an animal of the plains that retreated to the mountains because of the encroachment of man. Elk always lived in the Rocky Mountains. Rocky Mountain elk currently inhabit the Rocky Mountains from central British Columbia and Alberta through Idaho, Montana, eastern Washington, eastern Oregon, northeastern Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, the western portions of North and South Dakota. There are scattered populations of transplanted animals in many other states; western Nebraska, northeast Minnesota and northern Michigan among them. The current North American elk population is about 800,000.

Rocky Mountain elk bulls weigh 300-370 kg (700-800 lbs) and cows 200-250 kg (450-550 lbs). Bulls may stand five feet at the shoulder, with legs three feet long and body lengths of eight feet. Their coloration is generally tan with dark brown legs, neck, head and belly, with a buff colored rump. Bulls may be lighter colored than cows, appearing silver at times. White and silver colored animals do not appear in the wild. Antlers of mature bulls usually have six or more points per side with main beam lengths of 1.5 m (5 ft), inside spreads may reach 48 inches.

Roosevelt Elk

Roosevelt elk inhabit the northern portion of California and the western portions of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. Transplants have been made to Afognak Island in Alaska. Estimates of the total population range from 20,000 to 30,000. Roosevelt Elk are larger and darker than Rocky Mountain elk. Bulls may weigh in excess of 1000 pounds. Their racks often have several points forming a crown or basket at the normal fourth tine, and the beams may be slightly flattened or palmated.

Manitoba Elk

Manitoba elk inhabit central Manitoba, east central Saskatchewan and the badlands of North Dakota. Many of the Canadian elk are found in and near Riding Mountain and Prince Albert National Parks, and Duck Mountain Provincial Park. The coat of the Manitoba elk is darker than the Rocky Mountain elk. It is generally not as tall, but is stockier than the Rocky Mountain elk with similar body weights. Populations are stable at about 10,000 animals.

Tule Elk

Great herds of tule elk formerly inhabited the California Central Valley grasslands and the California Chaparral and Woodlands of central California, but were reduced to near-extinction by hunting and habitat loss, primarily the conversion of grasslands and wetlands to agriculture and pastureland. Cattleman Henry Miller, who owned vast tracts of the southern Central Valley, created a small private preserve in the 1870s in order to save the subspecies.

In 1932, the herd was given permanent protection in a 950 acre (3.8 km²) property, now known as Tule Elk State Reserve, near Buttonwillow in central California's Kern County. Tule elk also inhabit adjacent areas of mainly private land. They are smaller than other subspecies, with bulls averaging 500 pounds (230 kg). The current population is about 2000 animals. Hunting on private land has been reopened in recent years, however there are a very limited number or permits (40?) available for both resident and nonresident hunters. Hunt costs are around $13,000 through the services of an outfitter. The world record non-typical scores 340.

In 1978 tule elk were reintroduced to Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, California, north of San Francisco. The herd has since grown to over 500 individuals in two herds. Another herd lives in Ohlone Wilderness in Alameda County, California, a preserve maintained by the East Bay Regional Park District.


The primary predators of adult elk in North America are mountain lions, wolves, and grizzlies. Coyotes and black bears sometimes prey on the fawns. Red deer, like other cervids, are subject to chronic wasting disease, which may be similar to mad cow disease.

Rutting behavior

Adult Red Deer usually stay in single-sex groups for most of the year, coming together to mate during October. During the mating ritual, called the rut, mature stags compete for the attentions of the hinds and will then try to defend hinds that they attract. Rival stags challenge opponents by bellowing and walking in parallel. If neither stag backs down a clash of antlers can occur, and stags sometime sustain serious injuries.

Dominant bulls (stags) herd groups of cows (hinds) during the rut, from August into early winter. The bulls may have as many as 50 cows to keep from other less fortunate males.

After the rut the stags (bulls) and hinds (cows) separate. The fawns (calves) are born the following June and are usually weaned by eight months, although they may stay with their mother after this time. The newborn fawns are left by their mothers for long periods in long vegetation; their mothers return at intervals to feed them.

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