Lee Richardson Zoo

North American Elk

AKA Wapiti

Order: Artiodactyla - even toed ungulates
Family:  Cervidae

Scientific Name:  Cervus elaphus canadensis


DescriptionA member of the deer family, the North American Elk is also called “Wapiti” (pronounced Wahpetee) which is from the language of the Ojibwa Indian people from the Lake Superior area.  This animal has a dark brown head and under parts; a maned neck; grayish brown legs, sides and back; and straw-colored rump and tail.  The female (cow) are somewhat darker overall and less contrasting colored than the male (bull).  Its long legs help maneuvering through tall grass, thick forest undergrowth and deep snow.  Bulls have long branched antlers, reaching up to 66” across, that are shed each winter after rut.  Second in size to the moose, the adult elk matures at lengths between 85.4 to 109.8 inches and weights between 462 to 1020 pounds. 


Home Range:  Western North America, Northern Rocky Mountain region, Pacific Coast and other isolated spots in North America and Canada.  A small herd was
reestablished in 1980 in the Cimarron National Grasslands near Elkhart, Kansas.  They were once one of the most widely distributed of North American deer, stretching from coast to coast, and from Mexico and Georgia to northern Alberta.


Habitat Type:  Prairies and woodland edges, spending summers in the mountains and winter at lower elevations.


ReproductionFemales live with young separate from the bulls that live singly or in bachelor herds.  Males establish territory during mating season and lure as many females in as possible by bugling (a long, high-pitched yodel).  They protect their harem from other bulls by fighting and may become extremely aggressive against any intruder, with violent fights often occurring.  Gestation is 249-262 days (8-9 months) with calves being born in May or June usually only one calf, weighing 28-40 lbs is born.  The cow and calf live alone the first couple weeks before congregating into herds.  The calf follows the female after three days, grazes at four weeks, and is weaned and loses its spots after three months.  The first antlers begin to grow when a young bull is about 11 months old.  Sexual maturity is reached at 28 months in females.  While males are capable of mating in their second year, they usually must wait considerably longer because of competition from older bulls.


Diet in WildThey prefer grass when available.  In winter, they will browse fir, juniper, pine and many deciduous trees when the ground is covered with snow.


Diet in Zoo:  ADF-16-cubes, prairie hay, alfalfa, produce, pastries and bread for enrichment, and browse whenever available.


General Info:  Once a plains inhabitant, their original range was greatly reduced by the constant pressure of advancing settlers.  They retreated to wooded and mountain areas.  Elk are strong swimmers although some drown trying to cross partially frozen lakes and rivers.  There is no correlation between age and antler size.  After the prime of life (4-6 years) the antlers decrease in size and quality.  Poor nutrition or injury will affect antler growth.