to be Big
At birth, an elk calf weighs about 35 pounds (16 kg)
and can gain two pounds (one kg) a day for the first
At the start of its first winter, an elk may weigh
five times as much as when it was born.
Cow elk can weigh more than 500 pounds (225 kg),
stand 4-1/2 feet (1.3 m) at the shoulder, and
measure 6-1/2 feet (2 m) from nose to rump.
An average bull weighs 700 pounds (315 kg), stands 5
feet (1.5 m) at the shoulder, and measures more than
8 feet (2.4 m) from nose to rump.
All in the Family
other members of the deer family belong to a group
of animals called ungulates, the Latin word for
"hoof." All ungulates have hooves. This large group
used to be considered one order, but now "ungulates"
refers to two distinct orders, Artiodactyla
and Perissodactyla. The number of toes is the
most obvious difference between the orders.
Artiodactyls (elk, deer, bison, pronghorn,
peccary) have an even number of toes.
Perissodactyls (horses, elephants) have an odd
number of toes.
Elk, moose, caribou, white-tailed deer and mule deer
all belong to the order Artiodactyla and to
the deer family, Cervidae. The males of these
species grow and shed antlers each year. (Female
caribou also grow and shed antlers.)
Like other ungulates, members of the deer family are
herbivores -- they eat only plants. Their diet may
include grasses, forbs (low-growing, short-stemmed
plants), shrubs and trees (including limbs and
Members of the deer family must eat and watch for
predators at the same time. Elk fulfill these double
needs by gathering in herds. In a group, at least
one animal is looking up while others are eating.
Even the animals that are feeding are constantly
twitching and turning their ears to listen for
unusual or warning sounds.
spring, male deer and elk begin growing antlers from
bony bumps on their skulls called pedicles.
Increasing daylight elevates the level of the
hormone testosterone in the animal's blood, which
triggers the growth of antlers. Antlers begin as
layer upon layer of cartilage that slowly
mineralizes into bone. They are light and easily
damaged until they completely mineralize in late
summer. A soft covering called velvet helps protect
the antlers and carries blood to the growing bone
If you look closely at a deer or elk antler, you'll
see grooves and ridges on it. These mark the paths
of veins that carried blood throughout the growing
antlers. The blood stops flowing to the antlers in
August, the antlers finish hardening, and the velvet
falls off or is rubbed off. The hardened antlers are
composed of calcium, phosphorous and as much as 50
An antler grows faster than any other kind of bone.
It can grow up to 1 inch (2.5 cm) a day during the
summer. Biologists are studying antlers in the hopes
of learning the secrets of rampant cell growth,
secrets that may unlock cures to various forms of
In his second year, a bull elk usually grows slim,
unbranched antlers called spikes that are 10-20
inches (25-50 cm) long. By the third year, antlers
begin developing tines that branch from the main
beam. By the seventh summer, a bull's antlers may
have six tines each, weigh as much as 40 pounds (18
kg), and grow to a length and spread of more than
four feet (1.2 m). Why would an animal need to carry
around a rack of antlers that weighs so much? A
large rack identifies a bull that is successful in
finding food, lots of food.
A bull must consume huge amounts of nutrients to
obtain the energy and minerals needed to grow
antlers as well as the energy to carry them around.
Large antlers also identify a bull that is able to
defend himself against other bulls and against
predators. This information is of great interest to
female elk (cows) because they will mate with the
strongest, most successful males -- usually the
bulls with the biggest antlers.
other members of the deer family eat tough plants
such as grass or twigs that most other mammals can't
digest. They digest these plants in multi-chambered
stomachs, a trait of the suborder Ruminantia.
(Cattle, sheep and their wild cousins are also
ruminants.) The root of the name comes from "rumen,"
the first of three or four chambers of a ruminant
stomach. These chambers create a system for
digesting tough plant fibers and extracting the
maximum nutritional value from them.
To understand how this "super stomach" works,
imagine a cow elk as she nips off twigs, clips
leaves and crops grasses. This constant biting,
pulling and clipping sends as much as 15 pounds (7
kg) of tough plant fiber into the elk's stomach each
day. The unchewed material slides into the rumen,
the first chamber. There bacteria and protozoa begin
breaking down the plant material. Then the elk
regurgitates her food (the cud) and ruminates (chews
When the cud is completely chewed, the elk swallows
it again. The food particles pass through the rumen
and into the reticulum, the second chamber, for even
more digestion. Then the food passes into the omasum,
the third chamber, where water is squeezed out and
absorbed into the elk's body. Finally, the food
passes into the abomasum, the fourth and "true"
stomach, where it is broken down to the molecular
level so that it can be absorbed by the intestine.
Natives and Elk
Americans have hunted elk for thousands of years.
They ate the meat and used the rest of the animal as
a source of material for everyday items.
Bones and antlers were made into weapons such as
bows and clubs, and hides were made into war
Hides were also fashioned into tipi covers,
robes and moccasins.
Teeth were used for necklaces and clothing
decoration, and hides and bones were used in games.
Wapiti is a Shawnee name that means
"white rump." Some biologists used to prefer this
name to clearly distinguish North American elk from
one of its relatives the moose. In Europe, moose are
Elk in the Atlas
European-American settlers provided quiet evidence
of the former wide range of elk when they named
towns and counties after these magnificent animals.
A quick check of your atlas will show names such as:
*Elk City, Oklahoma
*Elk Grove, California *Elkhart, Indiana
*Elk Rapids, Michigan
Elk have also been immortalized in the names of
geographic features such as rivers, lakes, buttes,
points and mountains. Examples include:Elk Neck
State Park, Maryland Elk Pasture Gap, North Carolina
West Elk Mountains, Colorado and rivers named Elk in
Alberta, British Columbia, Colorado, Kansas,
Missouri, West Virginia, Wisconsin
Until late summer, a bull lives
peacefully with the other bulls. With the rut, he
views them with caution and antagonism. He becomes
their rival in a mating game that decides which
bulls will breed with the cows.
A rutting bull is one active animal. He bugles a
lot. He thrashes about in shrubs and saplings with
his antlers to remove their dead, dried-up velvet
and to polish them to a shine. Perhaps in
preparation for actual battling as well as a way to
advertise his fitness, he engages brush, saplings,
and shrubs in mock battles. With fury, he uses
antlers and hooves to cut a depression in the soil,
a wallow, that he urinates and defecates into before
he lies in it and rolls about. After rising from a
wallow, caked and dripping with an oozy mess of
musky smelling mud, his neck swollen with blood and
nose running, he squirts urine on his belly, hocks,
and neck mane. He is consumed with one aspiration,
to win the mating game and breed. Unfortunately, for
many a bull, the game, for the most part, was over
before it began. The winners are the dominant bulls,
the largest, strongest and most behaviorally
competent, as indicated by the size of their antlers
and massiveness of their bodies.
All bull elk rut. All go through the
rut's complex behavioral performance, which is
especially interesting, if not downright
fascinating, because it goes far beyond the basic
act of mating with cows. The rutting activity of
bull elk is a sorting out process that determines
which of them is dominant, or the best both
physically and behaviorally. It is the dominant
bulls that do most of the breeding.
To be dominant, a bull must be big and strong, an
older bull in his prime, 5-8 years old. A bull's
antlers tell much of his story. Bulls in their prime
have the largest, most magnificent antlers. Other
bulls and cows can measure the physical worth, and
to a certain extent, the behavioral worth, of a bull
by looking at his antlers.
A bull's worth is not all in his antlers. His
body size, strength, and aggressiveness are equally
important. Smaller antlered bulls have been observed
to defeat larger antlered bulls because of these
To become large and strong and have a big set of
antlers, a bull must survive many years. This
requires physiological and behavioral abilities such
as the ability to...
- convert food into tissue, including antlers,
- find food and shelter in the winter,
- physically withstand the rigors of winter,
- survive confrontations with other bulls, and
- avoid and to fight off predators.
The determination of which bulls are dominant is
important for the vigor of the species
- Gathering In & Herding A Harem
A dominant bull gathers in a harem, to which
he claims all breeding rights. He will not give
up that right without a fight. The work of
gathering is reduced by the existence of herds
of cows. It is sometimes made easier by the
existence of the harems of other bulls. Besides
fighting a harem bull and taking away all of his
cows, a bull is not above sneaking cows away
from another bull. Bulls are opportunistic; if a
cow can be gotten, she will be.
The gathering in of a harem is not the end of
a bull's herding effort. He must constantly work
to keep his cows together. Cows of a harem must
be herded in order to keep them together,
otherwise they will readily stray. Bulls are
quite aggressive in keeping their cows together
and moving them to where they want. They
commonly move their cows by threat and
push/shove. A bull will cut off a wandering cow
just as a cowboy on horseback would cut off a
steer by quickly quartering around the straying
animal and bringing it back to the herd. A bull
will use his antlers, which are quite sharp, to
prod a wandering cow and direct her back to the
herd. Sometimes a bull will gore a cow that's
not behaving correctly. A bull must keep his
cows together if mating is going to be
efficient. However, it should be recognized that
a cow stays in the harem by her own volition. If
she chose, she could bolt from the herd and
associate with another bull.
Please note that not all antlerless elk in a
herd are cows. Some of them are calves, male and
female, that are staying with their mothers and
are really too young to be a significant part of
the breeding ritual.
- Breeding & the Harem
Since estrus lasts for only a short time, a
bull must constantly be checking each cow to see
if she is in estrus. When she is, he must mate
with her as soon as possible.
- Harem Defense
A harem master must watch constantly to
prevent other bulls from taking his cows.
Lurking around the fringes of a harem are other
bulls, young and old, that are without cows.
They are driven by their sexual excitement to
breed and are looking for any opportunity to
sneak off with some cows or to challenge the
harem master for all of his cows. Bulls compete
for breeding rights. They are the winnings of
the mating game. Bulls with harems must be
prepared to defend them against challengers.
The first action that a bull does in
defending his harem is to show off his size,
especially the size of his antlers bugle
(Bugling is something that all rutting bulls do,
but it is most useful to the sultan of a harem.)
, and posture. This may be enough to frighten
off younger, smaller bulls. However, if a
challenger continues, the old bull may charge at
him with antlers held high. If the challenger
still does not give up, the bulls may thrash the
ground with their antlers, bugle, and rush at
each other. This is ritual fighting, which uses
less energy than actual fighting and does not
risk injury. If neither gives in, a sparring
match may occur in which they lock antlers,
brace their legs, shove, heave, and twist their
necks. The latter is used to put an opponent off
balance. Most sparring matches are short in
duration, with one of the combatants quitting,
disengaging his antlers, and fleeing the area.
The victor returns to the herd and after some
bugling, thrashing of vegetation, and scent
marking may lie down.
Sparring rarely results in injuries, but if
serious pushing and shoving takes place the
vigor of the encounter can result in broken
antlers. And if one of the rivals stumbles, the
other may disengage his antlers and gore him.
Even if a sparring bull quits and flees he may
be chased by his rival and gored. Goring may
result in deadly infections.
There is also outright battle in which the
bulls circle one another and then separate
moving to 30-40 feet apart. This is followed by
their charging toward one another with a
resounding clash of antlers as the two animals
collide. Consider the impact of two 800 pound
bulls hitting antler to antler. Once witnessed,
it will never be forgotten. Serious injuries may
result such as broken antlers, broken necks,
deep puncture wounds, and severe gashes.
Although antlers are designed to allow
combatants to easily disengage, sometimes they
become entangled in such a way that separation
is impossible and the rivals die.
Energy , the rut takes a lot of energy. During
the summer, bulls spend their time feeding in
preaparation for the energy needs of the rut and
winter. Summer feeding is especially important since
bulls eat little during the run which lasts 4-6
weeks. A mature bull may lose 20% of his body weight
during the rut.
"The true hunter, the true lover of wilderness,
loves all parts of the wilderness, just as the true
lover of nature loves all seasons. There is no
season of the year when the country is not more
attractive than the city; and there is no portion of
the wilderness, where game is found, in which it is
not a keen pleasure to hunt."
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