Wild Profile: meet the North American elk

Published: September 26, 2018

A-bull-elk-in-a-grassy-plain-in-autumn By Nina B/Shutterstock

Fall is prime time for the noisiest member of the deer family: the North American elk (a.k.a. wapiti). As of late September, hugely-antlered males are engaging in their violent, boisterous ruts. The biggest, scrappiest fighters win the most females. A successful bull might build a harem of up to 30 cows.

During mating season, male elk are known for their vocalizations: roars, grunts, barks, and in particular, their high-pitched shrieking “bugle” calls. (Possibly one of the strangest sounds in nature—think: the wails of the Ringwraith demons from The Lord of the Rings.) Bulls bugle to attract mates, and to demonstrate their dominance over other males. Their calls can carry over long distances—at least a kilometre and a half in an open area.

Large male elk can weigh almost 800 lbs—about as much as a grand piano, but less than most male moose. Elk antlers, meanwhile, can weigh 40 lbs, with a spread of one-and-a-half metres. By rutting season, the antlers have lost their velvet and are initially a pale grey, like cleaned bones. By the time the bull sheds its antlers in the winter, they’ll have darkened to look stained and grimy.

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