How Do I Recognize An Elk? (Here’s What To Look For)

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Recognizing an elk might not be easy, as they can oftentimes be confused with other wildlife like deer, caribou, and moose. This confusion is understandable, as elk, being a member of the deer family, share a lot of physical characteristics with other animals of the same species.

But fret not, because Floofmania will make it easier for you!

What Do Elk Look Like?

Elk are one of North America’s most fascinating animals. They have interesting features that make them attractive to watch. To know what these features are, continue reading the article, folks.

An elk has a long, wedge-shaped head, large ears, a thick neck, a buff body, and long, slender legs. Their color ranges from dark brown to tan, depending on the season. The whole body isn’t covered with one solid color, as there are variations in color in different parts of the body. We will go further into detail about this in the following sections.

Regarded as one of the biggest deer species on Earth, the elk also have impressive height and weight. Their weight can reach hundreds of pounds, while their height is usually 5 feet at the shoulder. But in comparison, the cows (female elk) are relatively smaller than the bulls.

What makes this majestic creature stand out more is its impressively large antlers. Because these antlers are only found on male elk (bulls), identifying the elk’s sex is simple if you come across them.

Another distinguishing feature of a male elk is its long, thick, and unkempt hair on the neck called the mane. The mane is also present among female elk, but they are so much thinner that it appears to be blending with their body fur.

Elk bull with big antlers standing on a hilltop among bushes with a gray sky behind him.

How Big Are Elk?

Elks are substantially larger compared to most North American wildlife. Most elk stand between 4 and 5 feet (1.3 and 1.5 meters) tall at the shoulder. Note that this measurement is at shoulder level only. Once the elk’s impressive antlers are counted, the height can reach up to 9 feet (over 2.5 meters).

Imagine how tall that is! In comparison, people with an average height of 5 feet and 9 inches can only see eye to eye with an elk. And with the span of their full antlers, it will appear that the elk can tower over any human being.

You may use their height and weight as a basis for distinguishing between a bull (male) and cow (female) elk. The bulls are relatively larger and heavier than the cows. Bulls stand 5 feet (1.5 meters) tall, while cows are 4.2 feet (1.3 meters) at shoulder level.

Bulls are also a few hundred pounds heavier than cows. An adult bull’s weight ranges from 650 pounds (300 kg) to 800 pounds (350 kg), while an adult cow’s weight only ranges from 485 pounds (220 kg) to 550 pounds (250 kg). At its prime, an elk’s weight can reach 1100 pounds. 

See how large they are? That’s why it is recommended that you keep a safe distance when watching elk. Although they are completely fascinating, any attack from an animal with that weight and height can pose serious danger to your life. 

What Does The Elk’s Face Look Like?

A bull elk with its face turned towards the camera with bushes and a blurred forest in the background.

Aside from knowing their usual size, it is, of course, important to know exactly what their face looks like.

The elk has a large wedge-shaped head with a black muzzle. While the entire face is a mixture of dark brown and black, there are slight variations as the top of the head is relatively darker than the sides. The large eyes and ears are proportionate to the size of the head. The eyes are quite expressive with the black rings surrounding them. 

What Colors Do Elk Have?

Elks’ color varies by season but is only within the range of tan to dark brown. You can observe that elk have tan colors during the summer and dark browns during the winter. Elks have a light tan rump, which stands out because of its slightly lighter shade compared to the color on the rest of their body. 

Their head, neck, and legs are also darker than their sides and back. The neck part is made darker by the elk’s long, black hairs called mane. Typically, the bulls (male elk) have lighter colors than the cows (female elk), although the variation is not that evident at a quick glance.

What Does The Elk’s Antlers Look Like?

You know what elk feature is significantly evident even at a quick glance? Their antlers. 

Only bulls (male elks) have antlers. An elk’s antler is said to be the largest among the antlers of Western animals. The elk’s antlers have these impressive features: 

  • They are large, pointed, and elongated, and can grow to be four feet long and weigh up to twenty pounds. 
  • Their beams are long and round, with six to seven tines coming off of them. The beam is the central stem of the antler, while the tines are the branches.
  • The majority of the antler’s parts are brown, but the tips are ivory-white. 

Do you wonder why the elk’s antlers are so strong? Well, it’s because they are made of bones and fibrous tissues that are covered with velvet. This velvet is a thin layer of skin on the antlers which provides nutrition when new antlers grow in after they shed their old antlers in late March or early April. 

Once the antlers have stopped growing, the elk will gradually scratch off the velvet, leaving the antlers bare until they’re shed.

The appearance of the antlers also varies depending on age. It is commonly observed that bulls around six years of age and below only have spikes, which means that there are no branches or tines that protrude from the antler. On the other hand, older bulls commonly have six to seven well-developed tines on their antlers. 

Bull elk eating grass in a forest clearing next to freshly sawn wooden logs on the ground.

What Do Elk Teeth Look Like?

From the elk’s antler, we’re now down to another body part that has unique characteristics: the teeth. 

The elk’s teeth feature ivory canines. Known as the “eye teeth,” these ivory canines can be found at the front of the elk’s upper jaw. There are only two of them, and since elk do not have any upper front teeth, it is easy to spot the eye teeth.

Their other teeth, the incisors, which are located at the front of their bottom jaw, don’t look anything like the ivory canines as they are made of enamel.

The teeth can also be a distinguishing feature between a bull and a cow, as the bull’s teeth are larger and wider

What Does The Elk’s Tail Look Like?

An elk’s tail is so short that it is almost hard to spot from afar. With its tan color, it appears to blend with the elk’s rump. 

What Do The Elk’s Feet and Hooves Look Like? 

What body part is close to the tail? Aha! The legs. And what parts are connected to the legs? Of course, the feet and hooves!

Here are some of the elk hooves’ features that are worth remembering:

  • Rounded (cloven) split hooves
  • On average, they are three inches wide and four inches long.
  • Four toes on each leg
  • Two dew claws on each foot

What Do Elk Look Like When They Move Around?

Like most four-legged animals, elk look calm when they are simply walking or running. Their faces only exhibit aggressiveness when confronted by a predator or during their yearly brawl with fellow elks.

The most common observation among moving elk is their print pattern. When walking, the prints of their hind legs usually just fall in front of or overlap the prints of their front legs. Interestingly, an elk’s walking stride falls between the range of 30 and 60 inches. This wide stride range enables them to cover great distances.

What Do Elk Calves Look Like?

Elk calves, who are born big at about 35 pounds, resemble their mothers. They are brown in color with white spots all around their bodies. These spots are very helpful in avoiding predators that endanger the lives of calves, as they allow them to hide and blend in with their environment. Once the calves turn three months old, these spots fade.

If you see a calf, expect it to be motionless, moving only when their mothers return to nurse them. 

Two young elk fawns in front of bright green bushes.

What Sounds Do Elk Make? 

Aside from their unique body features, the sounds that elk make are also important identifiers.

Elks use sounds as one of their primary ways of communicating. They make different sounds depending on the situation, sex, and who they are trying to communicate with.

BugleThis is the most common sound associated with elk. Usually made during the rut (the breeding season), elk bugle to show their dominance and look for mates. This sound makes them appear stronger and more attractive to prospective mates. A bugle starts off with a deep bellowing that later turns into a high-pitch scream that is so loud it can be heard from miles away. (Click here to hear an elk bugle)
ChuckleElks make this sound after the bugle. It is a series of sharp grunts similar to those of a chuckle. Like the bugle, elk make this sound to assert dominance.
Glunk This sound is quite uncommon to hear from an elk. As mentioned in another Floofmania article, glunks are a series of deep, bass-like tones that are used to locate harems. (Click here to hear an elk glunk)
Mew Mews are high-pitched sounds that are similar to a cry. This sound is common among calves who are lost. They use it to communicate their location to their mother. 

Knowing the differences between the sounds elk make is helpful in knowing what situations they are in. 

How Can You Tell The Difference Between A Male And A Female Elk?

The bulls (male elk) and cows (female elk) may be the same species, but they have distinguishing characteristics. Here are some of them: 

  • Only the bulls have antlers.
  • Male elk are usually around 25% bigger and heavier than their female counterparts.
  • During the rut or breeding season, the bulls are primarily involved in showing off their dominance to entice possible mates, while the cows wait for strong, dominant cows to mate with. 

How To Tell An Elk Apart From Other Animals? 

Just like I said at the beginning of this article, elk are often mistaken for other animals in the wild, especially by those who also come from the same family. It can sometimes be tricky to tell them apart, but now that you’re here, Floofmania will provide you with the most useful details to easily distinguish them from each other.

AnimalHeightLengthWeightColorAntlers
Elk4.2 to 5 feet at the shoulder level6.8 to 7.8 feet, nose to tail485 to 1100 poundsTan to dark brownLarge round beam with six to seven tines coming off of it.
Moose4.6 to 7 feet at the shoulder level7 to 11 feet, head to tail440 to 1500 poundsGolden brown to almost blackLarge, shovel-shaped, and ivory-colored with pointed ends.
Deer 2.7 to 4 feet at the shoulder level5 to 5.8 feet, nose to tail80 to 160 poundsMule deer: reddish-brown in the summer to brownish-gray in the winter
White-tailed deer: reddish brown to tan in the summer, grayish to grayish brown in the winter
Mule deer: small antlers that grow outwards
White-tailed deer: Large, brown-colored, round beam with four to five tines coming off of it
Caribou (Reindeer) 3 to 5 feet at the shoulder level4 to 7.2 feet, nose to tail175 to 400 poundsBrown to dark brownDark brown to almost black-colored antlers with impressive racks that can reach up to a little over four feet. Both males and females have antlers
Blackbuck2.2 to 2.8 feet at the shoulder level3.5 to 4 feet, from head to body68 to 100 poundsMale: the upper body and outsides of the legs are dark brown to black, while the insides of the legs are white 
Female: yellowish fawn to tan
Blackbucks do not have antlers. They have long, spiraling horns with around five turns. 

Author: Clarisse Jane Javier

Hello, there! I’m CJ, and I’ve been writing since primary school. I love to write about a variety of topics, from pets to the arts. I have had an endless fascination for animals since I was a kid. Until today, I always looked forward to learning more about the diverse species we have on Earth.

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