Echoes in the Mountains: Facts and Curiosities of Elk Biology

Echoes in the Mountains: Facts and Curiosities of Elk Biology

Phoebe Carnes

Images by Phoebe Carnes

The elk found in the Great Smoky Mountains today are Manitoban elk, or Cervus canadensis manitobensis—a subspecies of elk found in southern Canada, the Midwest, and some parts of the eastern US. Manitoban elk are larger in mass (weighing 500–1,000 pounds), though they possess smaller antlers, an adaptation which helps them traverse their preferred forested and alpine environments.

They differ from the more-famous Rocky Mountain subspecies in both habitat and appearance but share some fascinating physical attributes and behaviors that you might not notice until you spend a few seasons watching them in the wild.

The rut

An elk cow and her calf in the water.
An elk cow and her calf in the water.

Elk are famous for their unique and often exciting mating season known as ‘the rut.’ Between September and October, mature males (known as ‘bulls’) begin to gather harems of females (‘cows’) and their calves. Each bull will fiercely defend his harem from rivals, often making an eerie cry known as a ‘bugle’ to ward off males and announce his fitness to other cows.

To impress potential mates even further, a bull might rake his antlers across the ground and through brush, gathering a crown of shrubbery that drapes across his rack and head to make himself seem bigger and more intimidating. Furthermore, he might wallow in mud and his own urine to lather himself in a musk that females find irresistible.

Of course, his antlers aren’t just for show—they can be used in battle with opposing males. Though rare, these fights can cause injury and even death. However, such cases are uncommon, and both bulls usually walk away without fatal wounds (but perhaps some broken pride).

Two bulls sizing each other up in the Oconaluftee River.
Two bulls sizing each other up in the Oconaluftee River.

Towards the beginning of winter, bulls will leave their harem and go off on their own, occasionally forming bachelor groups with other males. By March, they shed their antlers and almost immediately begin growing a brand-new set.

Cows are just as busy during this time as well. After a 245-day gestation period, pregnant females will separate from the herd and go off to give birth. Calves are usually born between May and June, and they are born spotted and scentless to hide from predators. While their mothers leave them to graze, calves will find thick vegetation or brush to hide in, staying perfectly still until their mom comes back to check on them periodically. After two to three weeks, she’ll introduce her calf to the rest of the herd, usually forming small bands with two to three other females and their calves. Oftentimes, one cow will watch over multiple babies while the others feed, and this responsibility will be passed around each female in the group.

By September, as the calves lose their spots and stop relying so heavily on their mother’s milk, the rut begins again, and thus the cycle continues.

Exceptional antlers, fangs, and clicking joints

Elk aren’t only fascinating thanks to their complex mating ritual; they also share some amazing physical traits and adaptations.

It is believed that the ancient ancestors of elk once had tusks that they used in battle, similar to those found in wild boars and elephants today. Evolution, however, favored larger antlers instead. While  today’s elk no longer bear such fearsome teeth, they do still have two faint remnants of tusks in the form of ivory canines.

Two elk cows grooming each other.
Two elk cows grooming each other.

Elk antlers are exceptional in their own right. As bull elk begin to regrow their racks in the spring, the new antlers emerge covered in velvet—a layer of skin that shields a complex web of veins and nerves underneath. These blood vessels carry nutrients to the antlers, and in order to grow them in time for the next rut, bulls need a lot of them. This is why, from the beginning of spring to August, they gorge themselves on a surplus of nutrient-rich grasses, leaves, and shrubs. All of this work pays off, as their antlers can grow an inch a day, making them among the very fastest-growing bones on the planet!

As the bone stops growing and hardens in late summer, the velvet begins to peel and itch. During this time, a bull will rub his rack against trees or rocks, scraping the velvet off and simultaneously staining his antlers with hues of brown and black from the tree bark. As his testosterone builds, his neck swells, and the fur around his face, throat, and back darkens.

Beyond the feat of regrowing such impressive antlers every year, elk may also use some of their bones to communicate. From bugles to bleats, elk rely heavily on vocal communication to get their point across. But not all of their language is quite so obvious.

Recent studies show that elk may click and pop their anklebones to communicate. This behavior has been observed when an elk is coming upon another from behind, or when a herd is within thick foliage and unable to clearly see each other. It is hypothesized that this odd sound is used to subtly give away their location to any other elk in the area.

On matriarchs and chasing the turkey

Throughout the past year, I’ve spent nearly 20 hours a week with the Oconaluftee herd, and this has allowed me to observe some unique behaviors. One of these includes the presence of a matriarch within each group. Often, this is the oldest and largest female, who has been around long enough to know where to find the most nutritious grazing grounds during each season. Wherever she goes, the herd is sure to follow.

A young Cataloochee bull in velvet.
A young Cataloochee bull in velvet.

I’ve seen a group of 40 or more elk completely change their course because the matriarch decided to go another direction. Once a bull returns for the rut, he will take over her role within the herd, though a majority will still follow her lead until he pushes them to go elsewhere.

Some of the more entertaining behaviors I have documented come from the calves. Like many young mammals, they spend the first few weeks of their life taking in the world around them, sticking close to their mother’s side and following her lead. Play is an important aspect of their development, and it serves a vital purpose: it allows them to explore and hone in on survival skills that will serve them well as they become more independent.

Sticks are a favorite toy and one that can also serve as a quick snack, as can any bush or branch of shrubbery. Sometimes, the calves want to play a more high-stakes game that I have dubbed “Chase the Turkey.”

Though I have only witnessed this behavior once, it has continued to amuse me. After locating a lone turkey, a trio of youngsters burst out of the brush. The large bird took to the air in a flurry of feathers and wingbeats, retreating to the safety of a nearby oak. Satisfied, the calves pranced back into the woods only to come galloping out again when the turkey had the audacity to return to the ground.

Elk, clearly, are far more complex than we give them credit for. They may not be considered as intelligent as apes or cetaceans, but they are stunning creatures nonetheless. Their majesty and power has inspired humanity for generations, and they continue to be held dear by those who have heard their shrill cries or have seen them lounging in the sun on a cool November afternoon.

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Phoebe Carnes is a writer and wildlife photographer who recently served as a Teen Leaders in Conservation intern in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and shadowed wildlife intern Laurel Glover in fall 2021. She is a senior at Swain County High School in Bryson City, North Carolina, with plans to pursue an undergraduate degree in biology at the University of North Carolina, Asheville.

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