Look at this picture. Imagine you’re in the woods and you come upon this animal in a clearing. What’s the first thing you think about? Probably, a deer. Less likely an elk.
You’re not far off. Elk are members of the deer family and share many physical characteristics with animals of the same species whose differences can sometimes only be seen by an expert or an elk enthusiast.
Wondering which animals are easily confused with the elk? Let Floofmania list them out for you.
Table of Contents
Both the moose and the elk are large deer species, the former laying claim to the title as largest of its kind. Despite their size, moose are actually quite chill unless threatened. Even then, they are known to charge only as a bluff. It’s still best not to approach this animal from behind, though, because they can be dangerous if startled!
Elk are smaller in size but unlike the moose, it will not be so relaxed when encountering humans. The smallest sound will cause it to sprint away.
During mating season, both the moose and the elk behave the same way. Bulls will wallow in mud baths soaked with their urine. Eww, you might think. Not so with the female elk or moose! A properly “scented” bull will have no problems in getting a mate.
Mule deers are found in western North America and are characterized and named after their big ears, which resemble the mule’s characteristic big ears.
Another distinction that quadrupeds such as mule deer does is pronking, a silly-sounding word that means that it moves about by jumping into the air and landing all four feet at the same time.
Elks are bigger than mule deer but it is easy to mistake one for the other if seen from afar. The antlers both species have may also add to the confusion. To tell the difference, elk antlers are larger and sweep back while mule deer antlers grow outwards and are much smaller.
The white-tailed deer is usually what people think of when the word deer is mentioned. Bambi, one of the most universally loved cartoon characters, was in fact a white-tailed deer. While white-tailed deer are found all over the United States, the state of Texas has most of them.
While elk are one of the largest deer species, the white-tailed deer is one of the smallest. It is apparent even at birth. Elk calves are born weighing 35 pounds on average. The white-tailed deer is a tiny 6-8 pound fawn when born, similar to the weight of a newborn human baby.
Both elk calves and white-tailed deer fawns are born with spots as a means of camouflage. Big or small, they both need to be hidden from predators.
Another popular species of deer, especially during the Christmas holidays. They are called caribou in North America but are also known as reindeer in Europe. Antlers grow on both male and female caribou while only bull elks (males) have them.
Elk may be heftier than caribou but caribous have an impressive antler rack, reaching up to a little over four feet, and towers over elk antlers. The growth direction is also different. Caribou sometimes have antler tines extending over the nose. As mentioned earlier, elk have antlers that sweep back.
Both the caribou and elk are herbivorous. They enjoy munching on grasses, leaves, and plants. Caribou in particular prefer lichens. Elk can be omnivorous when necessary but mainly go for grasses as a major part of their diet.
The pronghorn is a mammal more related to antelopes and goats rather than cervids, which is the elk’s species classification. A quick glance will make you think it may be a cow elk because of its similarly shaped body.
Pronghorns are much smaller and can run at speeds that make them the fastest land mammal in North America.
Pronghorns have horns, while elks have antlers. Horns usually don’t branch out into several points like antlers, however, the horns of the pronghorn vary slightly by having a little branch pointing forwards and a longer one pointing backward.
Elk and pronghorn babies are both called calves. Elk calves are more vulnerable than pronghorn calves because they cannot run fast yet to escape any predators. When a pronghorn calf is two days old, it can easily outrun you!
The blackbuck would be considered exotic in North America because it is native to India and Nepal and like the pronghorn, more antelope than deer. It has corkscrew horns that are permanent, unlike antlers that are shed every year.
Elks are also called wapiti in Shawnee and Cree, which are indigenous North American languages. One of the local names of blackbucks is kala hiran in Kannada, an Indian language spoken in southwest India.
According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), elks are classified as least concern and their population is stable and even increasing. Blackbucks are also classified as least concern as of 2016 but their population trend is unknown.
Despite looking majestic and considered in European mythology as a sort of magical creature, the red deer is actually smaller than the elk. Other than that, they significantly resemble each other so much that the elk was classified as a subspecies of red deer for a long time. Due to mitochondrial evidence, the elk is now a distinct species.
Red deer stags roar during the rut as an adaptation to forest or woodland environments. Similarly, bull elks make a bugle sound to get some female attention but this time as an adaptation to open environments. Despite the elk sounding more than a little noisy, the red deer stag is the loudest among the deer species.
You would think that stags and bulls would be the leader of their herds but outside of the rut, a herd is matriarchal. This means that cow elks are the ones who look after and protect their own herds.
The sambar deer is a large cervid found in the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. The males grow antlers too but not as elaborate or multi-tined as the bull elk. Sambar deer are like the introverts of the deer species, living alone or in very small groups.
Because of their color and size, sambar deer are quite similar in appearance to elk. But if you look closely the shade of brown varies slightly, the sambar a little darker and possessing a longer tail than the elk.
Author: Mitzie C
Mitzie is a writer and animal welfare advocate. Her writing is inspired by her love for her rescue cats, Eddy and Dylan, and her rescue dogs, Cypher, Daegu and Holly. Follow her journey as she discovers her unique voice here in Floofmania and shares her insights on the importance of the animal kingdom.