For thousands of years, hunters, scientists, and nature lovers have been fascinated by North American elk. To the Lakota, elk represented strength, courage, and wisdom. At birth, Lakota boys were given an elk tooth charm to ward off ill fortune and to promote a long life. Some of that wild mystery persists to this day, and few people are more enamored with elk than those who hunt them. Across North America, sportsmen and conservationists have worked to protect elk and elk habitat, successfully restoring the population to over a million individuals from steady declines in the past few centuries. Biologists have even introduced elk to other countries, where they flourish.
There is still much to learn from these majestic animals. I recently spoke with veteran biologist Tom Toman, director of science and planning at the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF). RMEF is one of the leading conservation organizations for elk in North America, and has worked to conserve more than 6.6 million acres of habitat and reestablish herds in states such as Wisconsin, Virginia, Missouri, and Kentucky. Tom said there are a lot of interesting facts about elk that hunters may have missed, and I have included some of them below. Some of these may surprise you.
1. An overabundance of old trees can be bad for elk
Elk live in forests, so therefore more trees equal more elk habitat, right? Well, not exactly. It comes as little surprise that habitat is the most pressing issue for elk in North America, but as Tom explained, old trees are actually hurting elk populations.
“Our forest lands, whether on public or private land, are overstuffed with trees,” he told me over the phone. “The American public just loves trees, but in the forest where the elk live, too many trees block sunlight from getting to the forest floor. We’re not growing grasses and forbs, which are key to elk nutrition.”
What is needed are young forests, also known as early-successional habitats, that allow elk herds to thrive. Opening up tree-choked landscapes promotes the growth of low-lying vegetation, which are beneficial to elk and other wildlife.
“We’d like to see a lot more biodiversity out there so we’re really trying to encourage more thinning and more prescribed burning,” Tom said. “It’s not just for elk. There are a wide variety of bird species, small animal species, and big game animals that really benefit from the habitat work we do for elk.”
2. Elk will eat meat
Just like deer, elk will very, very rarely eat meat. Should hunters be afraid for their lives when elk turn carnivorous? Well, no. For the most part, elk seem to constrain themselves to snacking on the occasional bird nest and nestlings. According to the US Geological Society, researchers confirmed that elk and deer will raid bird nests, such as that of the savannah sparrow, for a quick nutritional boost.
“Some of these animals really are omnivorous,” said Pam Pietz, a wildlife biologist at the USGS Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center in North Dakota. “If they come across a nest, where the food doesn’t move or run away, they’ll take advantage of it.”
3. Elk can beat horses in short races
Elk can reach a maximum speed of 45 miles per hour. In comparison, the average horse can hit 29 mph while galloping, with a theoretical maximum of 55 mph. The Guinness Book of World Records states that the fastest race speed ever recorded was achieved by a horse named “Winning Brew,” which was able to run just under 44 mph.
Over rough terrain such as snow, wild elk will easily beat their domesticated cousins by a long shot.
4. Cow elk can grow antlers
Every now and then, there will be reports of a hunter bagging a female deer with a rack. The same phenomenon also happens with elk, although it’s much rarer.
“When you’re dealing with a lot of animals, it’s not unheard of to find strange things,” Tom said.
He shared a story of when he received a panicked call from a hunter a few years back. The hunter, who had a permit for antlered elk, was in shock after he discovered that the elk he harvested had a rack, but lacked other “bull parts.” Sure enough, when Tom arrived to investigate, the biologist found that the elk was anatomically a cow—except one with some questionable headgear. He told the worried hunter that the elk was not in violation: he had an antlered elk permit and that was what he bagged.
Hormonal imbalances cause female elk to develop antlers. While antlered deer females can still reproduce normally, it is not known whether the same holds true for elk. Learn more about how female ungulates grow antlers here.
5. Elk have a maximum vertical jump of eight feet
Despite being large and in charge, elk are surprisingly agile creatures. Not only can they leap a maximum of eight feet, they can look cool while doing it. Check out this herd of elk make short work of a low fence.
6. Ancient elk once had tusks
It is believed that in ages past, the rounded, thumb-sized teeth in the upper jaws of elk were actually tusks—fighting tusks that were used to ward off predators and to engage rivals during the rut.
“Over millions of years, the canines regressed,” stated Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Montana Outdoors. “Meanwhile, the animals’ antlers evolved into large, showy headgear that acted as a defensive tool. Yet even with their tusks shrunk to mere bumps, elk still retain some ancient behaviors associated with the teeth. When an elk curls its top lip to reveal its ivories, the ‘sneer’ represents a threat posture reminiscent of its prehistoric relatives. Baring canines often precedes charging and striking with antlers or front hooves—the weapons of modern elk.”
Elk traded their “fighting teeth” for large, disposable racks. Not all deer species have made the same deal with Darwin, however, and modern species like the Chinese water deer still retain sharp fangs—albeit much smaller and than those of ancient elk.
7. A bull elk’s harem can include up to 20 cows
Elk usually stick to single-sex groups but during the rut, a single dominant bull will maintain a harem of females. The bull will then defend this harem, which can have as many as 20 cows, against other challengers. While that may seem like living the life, the stress of keeping a harem and few opportunities to feed means that a bull can lose up to 20 percent of his body weight during this time. Those in less than peak physical condition are less likely to survive winter afterwards.
8. Elk can communicate using their feet
It’s hard to miss an elk’s bugling. It’s loud and it carries for miles. Yet elk also have a quieter way to communicate and signal each other, and it’s in their feet.
“They have an interesting way they communicate with their legs too,” Tom said. “They have bones in their ankles that make a little cracking or popping noise when they walk, so they know if there’s another elk walking up on them or something else. [Elk] seem to be able to use it to communicate very well.”
9. Lewis and Clark relied upon elk for a ton of stuff
If it wasn’t for elk, the Corps of Discovery Expedition led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark would likely have failed. Although there were only 33 members on the expedition, the crew ate their weight in elk. According to the National Park Service, there were times on the journey when the expedition ate at least one elk per day since hunting was more efficient for food than fishing. In addition, Lewis and Clark used elk skin and tallow for candles, bedding, clothing, cooking fat, and even binding for their journals.
10. Elk can breed with red deer
Up until recently, scientists thought that elk and European red deer were the same animal, but modern research revealed that the two were actually distinct species. One of the biggest reasons why biologists considered elk and red deer the same species was that, despite being separated by an ocean, the two animals can breed fertile hybrids.
Red deer are generally smaller than North American elk and have longer tails.
11. Elk are the favorite prey of wolves
According to Tom, wolves just can’t get enough of elk. In fact, from the northern gray wolf to the Mexican wolf, Tom said that the predators prefer elk over any other prey.
“I don’t know if it’s related to energy economics or something else,” he said. “Perhaps if they drag down an elk, it’ll feed the pack for much longer time for the energy expended. Elk seems to be the primary species for them, and it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about Idaho, Wyoming, Canada, or even Arizona or New Mexico, they prefer elk over deer when they’re available.”
12. Wolves don’t kill the most elk, bear and mountain lions do
On the flip side, Tom explained that the impact of wolves on elk may take a backseat to other predators such as mountain lions and bears. From what he has seen in Western states, mountain lions take the greatest proportion of elk, and also have a better public image as well. Tom chalked it up to the cats’ “stealthy” lifestyle.
“I think sometimes people aren’t even aware that mountain lions are there, while wolves will get out, run around barking like a dog, howling and everything. You don’t have the be a wildlife watcher to know if wolves are in the neighborhood or not,” he said. “It turned out that mountain lions are a far large predator of elk and elk calves, and they are followed up by bears.”
The impact of wolf predation upon elk depends on the area and how big the wolf population is. In states like Minnesota, where the wolf population is high, their impact on elk herds has been more greatly felt. In general, Tom said that predator management includes all predators, not just the ones that are the most controversial.
“It’s not just wolves, its also black bears, brown bears, mountain lions, and other predators,” he stated. “All of them take a toll.”
13. Elk antlers can grow more than an inch every day
An elk’s antlers can grow more than an inch a day in the summer. The amount of antler growth an elk undergoes, as well as total antler size, depends on how on how soon and how much sunlight the bull gets. Sunlight elevates testosterone in bulls, which in turn triggers the growth of antlers. By the time they’re finished, antlers can weigh as much as 40 pounds.
What other fascinating elk facts have you learned? Share them with us in the comments.
Image courtesy Bureau of Land Management