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Elk of the Rocky Mountains
6x7 point Majestic Bull Elk,  Rocky Mountains, Colorado

Elk *Cervus canadensis* or "Wapiti" (WAH-pi-tea) a name which comes from the Shawnee Native Americans, their word meaning "white rump". Some biologists prefer the name Wapiti to clearly distinguish North American Elk from its relatives the Moose, which in Europe, are also called elk. 

Wapiti are natural inhabitants of the Rocky Mountains in North America. These majestic mammals are the second largest of the Deer family, the Moose being the largest of the species.

Cow Elk  in winter  within Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado


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Elk and other deer family members belong to a group of animals called "UNGULATES" , the Latin word meaning "hoof." There are two groups of ungulates, Artiodactyla and Perissodactyla. The number of toes is the most obvious difference between the two. Artiodactyls (elk, deer, bison, pronghorn and peccary) all have an even number of toes. Perissodactyls (horses, elephants, etc.) have odd number of toes.

Large at birth, an elk calf weighs approximately 35 pounds (16 kg) and will gain on average, two pounds (one kg) each day for the first weeks of it's life.
By the beginning of its first winter, a new born elk may weigh as much as five times it's birth weight. Cow elk can average more than 500 pounds (225 kg) in weight. They can stand 4.5 feet (1.3 m) tall at the shoulder, and measure 6.5 feet (2 m) from nose tip to tail. Bull Elk will average 700+ pounds (315 kg) in weight with some large bulls exceeding 900 pounds (407 kg). They can stand 5 feet (1.5 m) tall at the shoulder, and measures more than 8 feet (2.4 m) from nose tip to tail.

Only male (bull) Elk grow antlers. Each spring, male Elk shed their antlers leaving a bloody stump (pedicles) on their heads which soon heals. Not long after, as Spring nears its end, Elk begin growing antlers from the bony stumps on the tops of their skulls. Researchers believe that it is the increasing amount of daylight which elevates the level of the hormone testosterone in the animal's blood, which thus triggers the growth of new antlers. Antler growth begins as layer upon layer of cartilage develops which then slowly mineralizes into bone material. The antlers can be easily damaged until they are completely mineralized in late summer. The soft covering called "velvet" protects the antlers as blood is carried beneath the velvet to the growing bone tissue. Antlers grow faster than any other bone. They can grow as much as 1 inch (2.5 cm) per day during their summer growth cycle. When examining Elk antlers, you'll will notice grooves and ridges on it where the veins had carried blood throughout the antlers growing time. August is the time when the blood supply to the antlers dries up. The antlers finish their hardening and the velvet begins to itch and is rubbed off by the Elk. The composition of the Elk antlers is calcium, phosphorous and can contain as much as 50 percent water.

Two year old bull elk usually grow unbranched antlers called spikes that can be 10-20 inches (25-50 cm) tall. In their third year, the antlers will begin developing tines that will branch outwards from the main beam. On average, the elk will grow one set of new points each year thereafter. The front tines help protect their eyes during their antler battles. With age, a bull's antlers may have six or more tines on each antler and weigh as much as 40 pounds (18 kg). They can grow to a length and spread of more than four feet (1.2 m). A large rack identifies a mature and wise bull that is successful in finding good food as well as mating stature.

Wapiti will graze for 8 or 9 hours a day gathering energy as well as providing for the normal development of antlers on males. Elk are herbivores which means that they eat only plants. Their diet may include grasses, low-growing, short-stemmed plants, trees and shrubs (including limbs, bark and new shoots). Elk eat and watch for predators at the same time. Elk gather in herds so that the group can watch and graze at the same time while having many eyes and ears open to threats and dangers. In the herd at least one animal is looking up while others are eating, most of the time there are several watching out. Even the feeding animals are constantly turning their ears to listen for sounds, warning, threatening or unusual.

Elk bulls must consume very large amounts of nutrients for the needed energy and minerals to grow large antlers as well as the strength to carry them. Large antlers aide the bulls to defend himself against predators as well as sparring with other bulls for mating rights. Large antlers are of great interest to the female elk (cows). Cow Elk seek to mate with the strongest, most successful males, therefore, usually the bulls with the largest antlers.

Elk consume some very tough plants such as grass, bark and twigs which most other mammals cannot digest. Elk have multi-chambered stomachs, a trait of the suborder "Ruminantia". Domestic Cattle, Sheep, their wild cousins, and other species, are also ruminants.) The basis of the name comes from "rumen", the name of the first of three or four chambers of a ruminant stomach. These chambers form a system for digesting tough plant fibers and extracting the maximum nutritional value from them.
To envision how this "multi-stomach" works, imagine a cow elk that is eating as she consumes grass, twigs, and leaves. A meal period can send as much as 15 pounds (7 kg) of tough plant fiber into the elk's stomach daily. The unchewed material enters the rumen (the first chamber). Inside the rumen, bacteria and protozoa begin breaking down the eaten plant material. The elk then regurgitates her food, called the "cud" and ruminates (chews cud thoroughly).
When the regurgitated cud is completely re-chewed, the elk again swallows it. This time, the smaller food particles pass through the rumen and into the "reticulum", or second chamber, for further digestion. The food then passes into the "omasum", or the third chamber, where the water is squeezed out and absorbed into the elk's body. Finally, the food passes into the "abomasum", or the fourth and "true" stomach, where it is then broken down to the molecular level so that it can be absorbed by the intestine for the elk's nourishment.

  View the Elk of the Rocky Mountains, Colorado


Autumn Elk Collection
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A Baby Elk's First Day
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