Common to parts of North America and Asia, elk are the second-largest cervid after the moose.
Also called wapiti or Cervus canadensis, elks belong to the deer family and are some of the largest terrestrial mammals in North America and Central and East Asia.
Although the earliest records of the genus Cervus and ancestors of the elk date back to around 25 million years during the Oligocene era in Eurasia, the earliest appearance of this species in North America was in the early Miocene epoch.
Initially, elk were classified as the same species as red deer, but further mitochondrial DNA studies revealed otherwise.
Eventually, elk were classified as a separate species with multiple subspecies in North America and Asia.
This animal has six subspecies in North America and four in Asia.
Although all elk subspecies have many standard features, they still differ in behavior, size, antler shape and size, color, etc.
This article will elaborate more on the different subspecies of elk, particularly the North American subspecies.
1. The Rocky Mountain Elk
Also known as the Rockies, the Rocky Mountains are the most extensive mountain range in North America and home to the Rocky Mountain elk (Cervus canadensis nelsoni).
This particular subspecies also lives in other parts of the USA besides the Rocky Mountains.
One such location is Colorado, where Rocky Mountain elk have contributed significantly to the ecosystem and natural history of the state.
The size of this subspecies, both males and females, falls between 500 and 1,100 pounds.
Although it is established that all elk have antlers, only the male Rocky Mountain elk can grow their antlers, growing and shedding a new set every year.
Like other elk, the Rocky Mountain elk is herbivorous, feeding on various plants, including grasses, shrubs, trees, and flowers.
These animals are ruminants with a four-chambered stomach to digest their plant-based diet properly.
Although Rocky Mountain elk can live in various settings, they prefer to inhabit forested and forested edge habitats.
In mountainous areas, they typically migrate down to lower elevations during the winter and remain at higher elevations during the hot months.
They can be found in several states in the USA, but they are more common in Colorado.
Millions of tourists visit Colorado’s National Forests and Rocky Mountain National Park yearly to see these elk.
2. The Roosevelt Elk
Commonly called the Olympic elk and Roosevelt’s wapiti, the Roosevelt elk (Cervus canadensis roosevelti) is the largest of the extant North American elk.
The subspecies was named after Theodore Roosevelt in the year he was still Assistant Secretary of the US Navy.
President Theodore Roosevelt created the Mount Olympus National Monument in 1909, with one of the main goals being to safeguard the Roosevelt elk.
The Olympus National Park was eventually established in 1937.
As mentioned, the Roosevelt elk is the largest North American elk.
These elk measure around six to ten feet in length and between 2.5 to 5.6 feet in height from their withers.
Male Roosevelt elk are significantly larger than females, averaging between 700 and 1,100 pounds, while females weigh 575–625 pounds.
Moreover, they have black, thick necks, and the males frequently have big, branching antlers.
Male Roosevelt elk also make loud and highly distinct sounds, known as bugling, which is audible over long distances.
Like other elk, this subspecies is herbivorous.
The Roosevelt elk consumes grasses and sedges from late spring to early fall as its primary food source.
However, it feeds on more woody plants during winter and eats blueberries and mushrooms.
The Roosevelt Elk is also significantly darker than other elk species, frequently having a tan body with a neck that is dark brown or even black.
These elks migrate throughout the year; they spend the summer in the mountains and on snowfields, then descend to lower elevations during the winter to avoid storms and search for food.
3. The Tule Elk
The tule elk (Cervus canadensis nannodes) is a North American elk subspecies that can only be found in several parts of California.
The Tule elk feeds on tule, a kind of sedge native to freshwater marshes, hence its name.
It is believed that there are only about 6,000 tule elk left in the wild – many of the others were lost due to hunting of the subspecies in the 18th and 19th centuries.
By 1873, a law banning all forms of tule elk hunting was passed, but there was no evidence that these elk remained in the wild.
Of all the North American elk, the tule elk is the smallest.
The average weight of males is only 450 to 550 pounds, and females have an average of 375 to 425 pounds.
Tule elk average seven feet in length and stand four to five feet at shoulder height.
They have light coats and long brown manes around their neck.
Tule elk females lack antlers, and males shed theirs every year.
As they become older, the antlers gradually get bigger and have more tines.
Given that they reside in semi-desert areas of open land and are endemic to California, tule elk are the most specialized elk in North America.
The subspecies is also known to inhabit largely temperate regions – most of the central state used to be part of the tule elk’s historical range.
Like other elk, this subspecies is herbivorous.
They feed primarily on sedge, called tule, and consume other annual and perennial grasses.
Tule elk require access to drinking water and typically congregate four miles or less from an open water source.
4. The Manitoban Elk
A subspecies of elk living in the Midwest of the United States is called the Manitoban elk (Cervus canadensis manitobensis).
This subspecies was on the brink of extinction at the beginning of the 20th century but has recovered since then.
By 1900, there were only 500 Manitobans left.
Its numbers are improving at the moment, and over 6,500 individuals are now living in the wild.
Compared to the Rocky Mountains elk, the Manitoban elk is larger but has smaller antlers.
Adult males weigh between 630 and 1000 pounds, and females have an average weight of 600 pounds.
Adults also range between seven and eight feet in length.
The Manitoban elk is characterized by its dark features, long tines, exceptional weight, and stunning tops.
Usually, the shade of their coats varies according to the season, from grayish in winter to reddish in summer.
A Manitoban elk’s winter coat is thick and well-insulated, while its summer coat is shorter and less dense.
The Manitoban elk, one of the province’s most prized wildlife resources, is a crucial component of the Midwestern United States and the southern areas of Canada’s prairie provinces.
North Dakota and northwestern Montana are the two primary locations for this subspecies in the US.
They live in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and parts of central and northern Alberta in Canada.
Although much remains unknown about its preferred diet, the Manitoban elk is herbivorous like other elk subspecies.
5. The Merriam’s Elk
A former resident of the dry regions of the southwestern United States and Mexico, the Merriam’s elk (Cervus canadensis merriami) is now extinct.
Unrestricted hunting, a rapid increase in farms and ranches, and unchecked cattle grazing had wiped off the subspecies since the first European settlers arrived in the New World (the United States).
Described as “extremely numerous,” in 1876, the native elk population of the state gradually decreased.
Elk hunting was prohibited by the Territorial Legislature in 1887.
However, this had little impact on preserving the Merriam elk, and they finally went extinct in 1898.
Merriam’s elk was much larger than the living subspecies today, with thicker, more robust features, a bigger skull, and a wider set of nasal bones.
They had much thicker and more evenly spaced antlers than ordinary elk.
They were also reddish on their head, neck, and legs.
Their hide, meat, and ivory teeth provided a source of income and sustenance to people at the time, causing an increase in the Merriam’s elk hunting.
As mentioned, these elk inhabited the arid southwestern states of Arizona and New Mexico.
Currently, the only elk subspecies found in southwestern states are the Rocky Mountain elk, which were transplanted from Yellowstone Park.
Elk populations on the continent were down to about 90,000 at the beginning of the 20th century as a result of the loss of Merriam’s elk.
6. The Eastern Elk
Like the Merriam’s elk, the eastern elk is also extinct.
Before their extinction, these eastern elk (Cervus canadensis canadensis) lived in the northern and eastern United States and southern Canada.
It is believed that the last eastern elk was killed in Pennsylvania on September 1, 1877, and the subspecies were eventually declared extinct by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.
Eastern elk were large, averaging between 600 and 1,000 pounds.
Like other elk subspecies, male eastern elk had antlers.
However, their antlers were significantly longer than other subspecies, averaging between four and six feet in length.
This elk had tawny brown coats; males (also called stags) had big antlers that fell off during the mating season.
Eastern elk were common and present across the United States and Canada during the beginning of European colonization of the Americas in the late 15th century.
As far west as the Mississippi River, eastern elk lived in the extensive forests of the Eastern Woodlands region.
Contemporary experts think that early immigrants hunted the eastern elk to extinction.
Elk were hunted for sport and consumed for their meat.
The antlers and teeth of these elk were used to make necklaces.
Experts also think that the extinction of the Eastern elk may have been influenced by habitat and resource loss.
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