The name Elk often causes confusion. In North America elks are known as moose. To compound this confusion, the name elk is also used in the Americas to refer to red deer. Elks are the largest deer in the world. They live in the cold conifer forests that cover northern mountains and lowlands. They are most common in Canada and Alaska but also live across northern Europe and Siberia.
These animals plod through forests and marshes, browsing on leaves, mosses and lichens. They often feed in rivers, nibbling on aquatic vegetation and even dive underwater to uproot water plants. In summer, they are most active at dawn and dusk. In winter, they are active throughout the day. They paw the snow to reveal buried plants and twigs.
Elks may gather to feed, but they spend most of the year alone. In the autumn mating season, the males fight each other for the females.
Male elks are almost twice the size of females. The males sport huge antlers - nearly 2 m (6.5 ft) across - and have flaps of skin hanging below their chins, called dewlaps.
The male’s magnificent antlers are only carried through until the end of the mating period, around October. A new pair will start to grow during the spring, attaining their full size anywhere between three and five months later. The antlers emerge covered in a protective layer of skin, which is later shed. The sheer size of a mature bull elk is usually enough to deter smaller rivals and predators, although females and particularly calves are vulnerable to wolves.
Distribution: Northern Europe, Siberia, Alaska, Canada and northern parts of the United States.
Habitat: Marsh and coniferous woodland.
Food: Leaves, twigs, moss and water plants.
Weight: Females 260 – 350 kg (570 – 770 lb); males 370 – 730 kg (815 – 1600 lb).
Length: 130 – 170cm (51 – 67 in), including tail; up to 213 cm (84 in) tall.
Maturity: 1-2 year.
Breeding: 1, occasionally twins and rarely triplets born in spring.
Gestation Period: 226-246 days; weaning occurs about 6 months later.
Lifespan: 27 years.
The male’s broad antlers are described as ‘palmate’ (meaning they have several lobes). The span from tip to tip can be up to 180 cm (72 in).
Elk rely heavily on their senses of smell and hearing, because their eyesight is poor.
Variations on a theme
The antlers can reveal both the age of the elk and its area of origin.
Hollow hairs in the coat help insulate the elk from the cold.
A HEALTHY APPETITE
An individual elk can eat up to 20 kg (44 lb) of vegetation daily. They will sometimes graze on aquatic plants.