Author: Anne Schultz

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Scientific Name: Cervus elaphus
Common Name: Elk, Red Deer, Wapiti
Spanish Name: Alces

Elk are big animals. They weigh between 507 and 1000 pounds and stand between 3 and 5 feet tall at the shoulder. Their coats are tan, with a light tan colored rump. In the winter an elk's coat becomes a darker brown. Elk have large antlers.

Geographic range:
Elk live throughout the northern hemisphere. Elk were once found throughout most of North America, but people have reduced their range by hunting and moving into their habitat. Today, large populations of elk are only found in western North America, from Canada south to New Mexico. Some small elk populations have been restored in the eastern United States with elk from western herds.

In the summer, elk are found in mountain meadows and coniferous forests. During the colder months of the winter, they move into lower elevations to pinyon-juniper woodland, plains, or grasslands.

Food Web:
Elk are herbivores. Grasses make up more than 80% of their diet and they also eat mushrooms! 80% of a mushroom's weight can be water, which makes them a good water source for lots of animals. Mushrooms have a lot of protein, vitamins B and C, and potassium. Keep that in mind the next time you order a pizza!

Elk are prey for wolves, mountain lions, and bears. Young calves may be hunted by bobcats and coyotes.

Reproduction and Development:
Both male (bull) and female (doe) elk can breed when they are 16 months old. Elk breed in September. Males compete for mates. The dominant males wins the chance to form harems. A harem is a group of female elk that stay with a bull elk during the fall mating season. Males defend their harems from other bull elk hoping to find a mate.

It takes an elk 8 to 9 months to be born (gestate)--about the same amount of time it takes a human! Female elk usually give birth to a single calf very rarely, twins are born. A calf is tiny (it weighs only 33-35 pounds). The mother will care for her newborn away from the herd for about two weeks to make sure that the tiny elk will be safe. By the time the calf is 16 days old, it is ready to join the herd. Young elk are weaned by the time they are 60 days old.

Elk are highly social animals and live in herds. Males will form bands with other male elk, except for during the breeding season when they will live alone. Females live in herds with other females and immature calves. Herds are matriarchal, with an older, dominant female guiding the herd.

Before 1900, there were two subspecies of elk in New Mexico: the Rocky Mountain elk (Cervus elaphus nelsoni) and the Merriam's elk (Cervus elaphus merriami). Merriam's elk were once found from Arizona to southwestern Oklahoma, but were hunted to extinction by humans by the early 1900s. In 1911, New Mexico began to reintroduce elk. Twelve animals from Colorado were introduced near Raton and Las Vegas, and fifty animals from Yellowstone National Park were introduced near Pecos and in San Miguel County. All the reintroduced elk were the subspecies Cervus elaphus nelsoni. The state elk population recovered steadily. In New Mexico The Rocky Mountain elk currently live throughout Merriam's elk's historic range.


Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Subphylum: Vertebrata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Artiodactyla
Family: Cervidae
Genus: Cervus
Species: Cervus elaphus nelsoni

Species information was obtained from the Biota Information System of New Mexico (BISON) and the University of Michigan's Animal Diversity Web
( //animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/index.html ).

Related Terms: cervus elaphus, red deer, wapiti, alces