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American Elk Notecard



Elk  (Cervus canadensis)

The elk, or wapiti, is one of the largest species within the deer family, and one of the largest land mammals in North America.  The name “wapiti” is derived from the native Shawnee and Cree languages meaning white rump.

Elk range in forest and forest-edge habitat, feeding on grasses, plants, leaves and bark.  There are many subspecies of elk which vary in size, but all elk are quite large.  Female cows can weigh between 350-500 pounds.  Male bulls are a good deal larger.  Only the males have antlers, which start to grow in the spring and are shed each winter.  Antlers are made of bone and can grow about an inch each day!  During the fall, elk grow a thicker coat of hair, which helps to insulate them during the winter.  Elk have different coloration based on the seasons and types of habitats with gray or lighter coloration prevalent in the winter and a more reddish, darker coat in the summer.  Subspecies living in arid climates tend to have lighter colored coats than do those living in forests.

Adult elk generally stay in single-sex groups for most of the year.  During the mating period, mature bulls compete for the attention of the cow elk.  Rival bulls will challenge opponents by bellowing and paralleling each other, walking back and forth.  this allows potential combatants to assess the other’s antlers and general prowess.  If neither bull backs down antler wrestling ensues.  Dominant bulls will defend their harem of 20 cows or more from competing bulls and predators.  A bull with a harem rarely feeds and may lose up to 20% of his body weight. Bulls have a loud vocalization consisting of screams known as “bugling”, which can be heard for miles, it is one of the most distinctive sounds in nature.

Elk are impressive animals and have played an important role in the cultural history of a number of native peoples, but is of particular spiritual importance to the Lakota, as the embodiment of strength, power and courage.

Artwork by Lisa Baechtle © 2017

Text by Steve Sierigk