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Elk (Cervus canadensis)

The elk or wapiti is one of the largest species of the deer family in the world, and one of the largest land mammals in North America and eastern Asia. It was long believed to be a subspecies of the European Red Deer (Cervus elaphus), but evidence from a 2004 study of the mitochondrial DNA indicates that the two are distinct species.

This animal should not be confused with the larger Moose (Alces alces), to which the name “elk” applies in the British isles and Eurasia. Apart from the moose, the only other member of the deer family to rival the elk in size is the south Asian Sambar (Rusa unicolor).

Elk range in forest and forest-edge habitat, feeding on grasses, plants, leaves, and bark. Although native to North America and eastern Asia, they have adapted well to countries where they have been introduced.

Elk cows average 225 to 241 kg (500 to 530 lb), stand 1.3 m (4.3 ft) at the shoulder, and are 2.1 m (6.9 ft) from nose to tail. Bulls are some 40% larger than cows at maturity, weighing an average of 320 to 331 kg (710 to 730 lb), standing 1.5 m (4.9 ft) at the shoulder and averaging 2.45 m (8.0 ft) in length.

The largest of the subspecies is the Roosevelt Elk (C. c. roosevelti), found west of the Cascade Range in the United States of California, Oregon and Washington, and in the Canadian province of British Columbia. Roosevelt elk have been reintroduced into Alaska, where the largest males are estimated to weigh up to 600 kg (1,300 lb). More typically, male Roosevelt elks weigh around 300 to 544 kg (660 to 1,200 lb), while females weigh 260 to 285 kg (570 to 630 lb).

From mid-May to early July, cow elk go off into secluded woodlands to have their single young (twins are uncommon.) For the first three weeks of an elk’s life it is defenseless to predators, so its mother keeps it well hidden in thickets. She licks her calf all over to make sure it is perfectly clean and clear of any smells that may attract predators.

Only cows, calves and young bulls make up these summer herds. They rely on the safety of a group to protect them from predators. Mature bulls, on the other hand, remain solitary or in small bachelor groups.

The sexes join together during the breeding season, or “rut.” Mature bulls gather cows and their calves into harems. Young bulls usually look on from the sidelines. Once the rut is over, elk stay in loose mixed herds until spring. Then the sexes separate again until fall.

References: Wikipedia, Parks Canada