Elk Anatomy

Elk Anatomy

The elk or wapiti (Cervus Canadensis) is one of the largest deer species on the planet and the second largest (second only to moose) ungulate in North America. There are three subspecies of elk that inhabit the United States. The most common is the Rocky Mountain elk (or American Elk), the Roosevelt elk and the Tule elk. Each species varies in size, diet and the location in which they live.

Elk Coats

Bull Elk Standing In The Timber
Even at 700lbs this bull elk almost disappears in his surroundings.

The Tule, Roosevelt and Rocky Mountain elk are very similar in appearance. In fact, similar enough that it would be very difficult to differentiate between the three if they were in the same location. All species of elk have two coats, a summer coat and a winter coat that are actually significantly different in color. During the summer months while the bulls are growing antlers and the cows are tending to calves, the shorter summer coat is almost copper colored without much color distinction between body and head/neck. The dark head/neck and light colored body that most are accustomed to seeing doesn’t develop until the end of August.  The changing of the coats from Summer toWinter and vise versa is set into motion by the amount of daylight and not changing temperatures.

Elk Subspecies

Rocky Mountain elk are the most abundant, but not the largest (in size) of the three subspecies. Mature elk cows average about 500lbs and can reach almost seven feet in length. Mature bulls are significantly larger with an average weight of over 700lbs, stand five feet at the shoulder and frequently measure over eight feet in length. The Rocky Mountain elk have the largest antlers of the three types of elk. Because they are antlers (not horns) they shed each Spring and grow through the Summer months and are fully grown near the end of August. Antler is the fasting growing bone in the world, some bulls antlers will grow inches in a single day during the summer.

The Roosevelt elk are the largest of the three types of elk and they are found in the Western United States and Canada, they have also been reintroduced to Alaska and are doing very well. An average Roosevelt bull can weigh 1,000lbs or more and average cows may weight 700lbs. Some biologist have attributed this to the amount of lush greens in their areas and much less harsh winter conditions than the Rocky Mountain Elk.

Tule elk are the smallest of the subspecies and are only found in California and commonly known as the “dwarf elk.” The name Tule was derived from a plant that they eat, tule, that is found abundantly in California. The Tule elk are significantly smaller than both the Roosevelt and Rocky Mountain elk, with mature bulls weighing around 500lbs and average cows weighing near 400lbs. The state of California claims to have a population of Tule elk that exceeds 4,000 animals.

Elk Digestion

Elk Organs Exposed
This is an excellent look at the vitals of an elk, keep in mind the front shoulder will siit a little further back but the photo does a goood job of showing the vital organs.

Elk are ruminants, meaning they are equipped with a four-chambered stomach. Interestingly a ruminants stomach allows the animal to consume a large quantity of food at once and then chew and digest the food later. You may see elk bedded down chewing; this is known as chewing their cud or the food that they have gathered at the previous feeding session. During the summer months, elk eat almost continually throughout the day and night. It is not uncommon for an elk to eat 15lbs or more of vegetation.

Elk Shot Placement

As mentioned earlier, elk are a member of the deer family, thus their organ structure is very much the same as a whitetail or mule deer.  Fortunatley for us as hunters, the lungs and heart are a much larger target than on a deer, but also more protected with bigger, heavier and stronger ribs, shoulder bones, etc.  The heart on a mature bull is close to the size of a miniature basketball and sits almost directly between the front shoulders low in the chest cavity.  The lungs enclose the heart on three sides, extending back behind the "crease" of the shoulder/leg towards the middle of the abdomen to the diaphragm.  Any hunters aim should be similar to shooting a deer, lower third behind the shoulder.  Unlike deer, elk are much more likely to continue walking on a less than stellar shot.  High shots (even in the lung area) are less than desirable because it takes so long for the huge body cavity to fill up before leaving a blood trail.



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