What are Elk?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Elk are large ungulates found in Europe, North America, and Asia. There are several species of this animal, but all are found in the Cervus genus. Other than moose, elk are the largest animals in the deer family, sometimes growing to formidable size and strength. They are also highly adaptable, thriving in a wide range of environments. As a result, the animals are not considered to be a threatened species, despite habitat depletion in some areas.


The name “elk” can be confusing, as in Europe, people use the term to refer to the animal Americans think of as a moose. Some biologists prefer the Shawnee Indian word wapiti, meaning “white rump.” Generally, the animal under discussion is clear from the context, especially if the nationality of the speaker is known. Some species are also called deer, as is the case with the European red deer, an animal which is closely related to but genetically distinct from American elk.

These animals are thick and muscular. Full grown animals can weigh up to 700 pounds (317 kg), and the males will develop large racks of branching horns. Elk are brownish to reddish in color, depending on the species, with American elk having distinctly pale rumps. Males have a unique type of vocalization, called a bugle, which they use to communicate with other males about territory and mating rights.

It takes around two years for these animals to reach sexual maturity. The females produce one calf a year, typically, and it takes two years for the calf to be weaned. After weaning, calves may stay in a herd for a year or so before branching out; most herds are composed primarily of females and weanlings, who band together for self defense. In many cultures, people have successfully bred tame elk, who may be released in game parks and preserves to increase biodiversity.

The animals feed on shrubs, leaves, plants, bark, and grasses. During the summer, they eat extensively, stocking up for the winter. The animals can be found in forests, meadows, and a variety of other habitats, with many elk preferring cool alpine areas in the summer and warmer plains in the winter. The animals have been a popular source of food for many humans for centuries, and they also have religious significance for some Native American tribes.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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One of the largest elk populations in the United States can be found in Montana.

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