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Cervus elaphus Linnaeus, 1758
Wapiti; Elk

Life   Vertebrata   Mammalia   Cervidae   Cervus

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Cervus elaphus, elk
© Copyright Gail Starr 2011 · 1
Cervus elaphus, elk
Cervus elaphus, elk
© Copyright Gail Starr 2011 · 1
Cervus elaphus, elk

Cervus elaphus_map.320.jpg
© Photographer/source
Cervus elaphus map
Cervus elaphus_map.GSMNP.320.jpg
© Photographer/source
Cervus elaphus map
Throughout their range, elk inhabit a variety of habitats. They usually frequent high, open mountain pastures in summer and move to lower wooded slopes, often dense woods, in winter.

  • Special Protection Status

    • Rangewide: Elk are classified as a game species in most states where they occur and are protected by state game laws.

    • In Park: All plants and animals are protected within Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Collection requires a permit which is usually granted only for research or educational purposes.

  • Adult total length: 6 3/4 - 9 3/4 ft. (203 - 300 cm)

  • Tail: 3 1/8 - 8 3/8 in. (80 - 213 mm)

  • Height at shoulder: 4 1/2 - 5 ft. (137 - 150 cm)

  • Weight: 450 - 1,089 lbs. (203 - 495 kg)

  • Physical Characteristics: The elk is the second largest cervid in the world, second only to the moose. The sides and back are grayish-brown, and the underparts are blackish. The head, neck, and legs are dark brown. The rump and tail are buff-white. A dark brown mane is present on the neck. Females possess four mammae. The antlers usually possess at least five tines, with the brow tine forming an obtuse angle with the beam (Linzey, 1998). Antlers can weigh over 28 pounds (13 kg.) (Whitaker and Hamilton, 1998).

Scientific source:

Taxonomic Category Scientific Name Common Name
Phylum Chordata Chordates
Class Mammalia Mammals
Order Artiodactyla Even-toed ungulates
Family Cervidae Elk; Deer

Geographic distribution
Elk originally ranged over much of the United States. Now, however, their range has been restricted mainly to scattered localities in the western half of the United States. The largest contiguous range exists in the Rocky Mountains south to northern New Mexico. Small, isolated, introduced populations exist in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Kentucky, and several other states.

  • Range Maps

    North America Great Smokies

  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Linzey and Linzey (1968) summarized the history of this species in the park and surrounding area:

    "Although the American elk roamed throughout the mountains in former times, it has become extirpated. In 1896, Rhoads stated: "At the beginning of the present century, this noble animal was probably a visitant to every county in the state [Tennessee]." Ganier (1928) reported that the last one in eastern Tennessee was shot in 1849.

    In discussing the status of this mammal in North Carolina, Hamnett and Thornton (1953) reported that it "once inhabited at least a portion of North Carolina including the northern Piedmont and Mountain counties. It is doubtful if they were ever very numerous, however, since this region was near the southern limits of their range." They stated further that "...it probably was present in the Mountain Region until the late 1700's." Brimley (1945) recorded that elk occurred in colonial times in the mountains of North Carolina until at least 1750. Cope (1870) noted that horns of elk were found in the Black Mountains in western North Carolina in the early 1800's."

    In February 2001, 12 cows ( 6-9 of which were pregnant) and 13 bulls from Kentucky's Land Between the Lakes were released in Cataloochee Valley. At least four of the cows gave birth. Twenty-five additional elk are expected to be released in the park during 2002, and 25 more the following year.

Natural history
  • Reproduction
    The rutting season extends from August to November, peaking in October and November. During this time, adult bulls assemble harems of up to 60 cows. Bulls give their bugling call, roll in wallows of stagnant water and mud, and urinate on vegetation. After a gestation of about 255-275 days, a cow leaves the herd to give birth usually to 1 calf, sometimes 2, weighing 25 to 40 pounds. After a week, the cow rejoins the herd with her calf. The calf is entirely dependent on milk for one month. Weaning is completed in two months. Protective adaptations of young elk include a spotted pelage, a lack of scent, and a capacity to remain still and silent.

    The first elk calf born in the park was born on June 22, 2001. The birth of 4 calves were confirmed during 2001. One calf may have been stillborn and one was most likely killed by a coyote.

  • Longevity
    Elk have been known to live for at least 25 years in captivity, but seldom reach this age in the wild (Whitaker and Hamilton, 1998).

  • Terrestrial Ecology
    Elk are primarily nocturnal but are most active at dawn and dusk. Larger herds occur in open areas with smaller groups being found in wooded areas. Territories are marked by rubbing the sides of the chin and muzzle on freshly stripped seedlings.

    Rutting bulls emit a "bugle" or "whistle" which serves as a warning to other bulls and a means of domination to cows. The vocalization begins as a bellow, changes almost immediately to a loud, shrill whistle or scream, and ends with a series of grunts. Cows neigh to their calves and may also whistle during the spring but not as loudly as bulls.

    Elk are primarily grazers in spring and summer, but may become browsers feeding on woody vegetation in winter if grasses, sedges, and forbes are unavailable. Lichens are also consumed.

  • Predators and Defense
    Major predators include mountain lions, bears, and coyotes. One of the first calves born in the park in 2001 is thought to have been killed by a coyote.

  • Parasites
    On September 23, 2001, an adult female elk in the park was euthanized after showing neurological and physical signs consistent with meningial worm (Parelaphostrongylus tenuis). Meningial worm is usually carried passively in white-tailed deer. However, in nearly all other Cervidae, including elk, the meningial worm produces neurological problems that often result in death.

Links to other sites


  • Text
  • Photographs
    • Roger Barbour

  • Map development
  • Web page design & coding
    • Casandra Lloyd, University of Georgia, Athens
    • John Pickering, University of Georgia, Athens

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Updated: 2018-02-26 02:34:20 gmt
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