Elk, the name given to various animals of the deer family. Most biologists recognize at least four kinds of North American elk, all of them subspecies of the red deer. Except for the tule elk, they are also commonly called wapiti, a name given to them by the Shawnee Indians. The Eurasian elk is the same animal as the moose, and is not discussed in this article.
Except for the moose, the wapiti is the largest member of the deer family. A full-grown male, called a bull or stag, stands as much as five feet (1.5 m) at the shoulder and weighs from 700 to 1,000 pounds (320 to 450 kg).
The body of the wapiti is pale chestnut, and the neck, which bears a mane, and the head are dark chestnut brown. A full-grown bull has antlers that spread four to five feet (1.2 to 1.5 m). Each antler has five or more well-developed tines, or points. The female, or cow, is smaller than the bull and has no antlers.
Wapiti live in herds. They feed mainly on grasses and usually climb to high meadows in summer and return to the lowlands in the autumn. During the mating season, in the autumn, the bulls attempt to gather a large harem of cows; the average bull has a following of about a dozen.
The female gives birth in May or June, usually to a single calf. The newborn calf weighs from 30 to 40 pounds (14 to 18 kg). Within a few hours after birth the calf is strong enough to move about. At first its light brown coat is marked with large white spots, but these disappear in two or three months. The calf is completely weaned by late fall. The average life span of the wapiti is 16 or 17 years.
When North America was colonized, wapiti were numerous in the eastern as well as the western part of the continent. Those in the area extending from the Carolinas to the Rocky Mountains fell as easy prey to hunters. It was estimated that more than 10,000,000 head were roaming the country when America was discovered by Europeans. By 1907, when conservation began, the number had dwindled to less than 50,000. Laws now protect the remaining wapiti and reserves have been set aside for them. They are found primarily in the Rocky Mountains and other areas of western North America.
The tule elk, or dwarf elk, found in California, is smaller than other North American elk. A stag averages 425 pounds (190 kg). Tule elk are golden brown in color. Overhunting reduced the tule elk population to fewer than 100 by the 1870's. There are now several large managed herds protected by law.
North American elk belong to subspecies of Cervus elaphus of the deer family, Cervidae. The tule elk is C. e. nannodes.