Elk Biology

A male elk with antlers
Male elk use their antlers to spar with other bulls.

Ron Shrieves Photo

Quick Facts

  • Adult male elk are known as "bulls" and weigh an average of 600-700 pounds. Female elk are called "cows" and average 500 pounds.
  • Adults are 7-10 feet long from nose to tail and stand 4.5-5 feet tall at the shoulder. Adult males have antlers that may reach a width of five feet. Elk can live as long as 15 years.
  • Elk have an acute sense of smell and excellent eyesight to protect them from predators.
  • Coyotes, bobcats, and black bears may kill young, sick, or injured elk, but adult elk are generally safe from predators in the park. Gray wolves and mountain lions, both of which have been extirpated from the Great Smoky Mountains, are successful predators of elk elsewhere.
  • Elk are vegetarian and eat grasses, forbs, and acorns, as well as the bark, leaves, and buds from shrubs and trees.
  • Cows usually give birth to only one calf per year. Newborns weigh about 35 pounds and can stand within minutes of birth and calf. Calves nurse for 1-7 months. Females are ready to breed in the second autumn of their lives.

Seasons of the Elk

In early-spring—usually March—most elk shed their antlers. The antlers, which are rich in calcium, are quickly eaten by rodents and other animals. (It is illegal to remove antlers from the national park.) After they have shed their antlers, elk immediately begin growing new ones.

In late-spring, elk shed their winter coats and start growing sleek, copper-colored, one-layer summer coats.

Most calves are born in early-June. During the hot summer months, male elk roll in mud wallows to keep cool and avoid insect pests. By August, elk antlers are full grown and have shed their "velvet". Calves have lost their spots by summer's end.

During the fall breeding season, known as "rut", male elk make their legendary bugling calls to challenge other bulls and attract cows. Their calls may be heard a mile or more away. Large bulls use their antlers to intimidate and spar with other males. Most encounters are ritualistic and involve little physical contact; only occasionally do conflicts result in serious injuries to one or more combatants. During the rut in September and early October, dominant bulls gather and breed with harems of up to 20 cows.

Elk wear a two-layer coat during the colder months of winter. Long guard hairs on the top repel water and a soft, wooly underfur keeps them warm. Elk may move from the high country to valleys to feed.

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Last updated: September 5, 2023

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