How to Distinguish Elk, Reindeer, Caribou and Moose

Deer in the mist.

Who is that beyond the mist? [Image: www.flickr.com/photos/spikylau]

On a misty morning behind the tall trees, a deer appears with startled eyes from the nothing, timidly standing around. There’s a mythical air that hangs about this beautiful creature. It’s no wonder Ancient Japanese and Chinese considered them divine messengers and symbols of tranquility.

Still, with 90 deer species in the world, it’s hard to say what you’re looking at. When it comes to the largest of the bunch we have you covered. Elk, reindeer, caribou and moose all share major characteristics, including behavior, size, antlers, and coat. They are easily recognized from afar due to their enormous size, but can be hard to differentiate. Though mostly docile, the viewer should approach deer with caution as they can react when provoked, especially during mating season. Here are some clues on how to distinguish elk, reindeer, caribou and moose— best learned before your next scouting day.

Elk

Elk laying in the snow.

Image: www.pinterest.com

Called wapiti (light-colored deer) by Native Americans, the elk is the second largest deer after the moose. Its antlers can grow up to 4 feet, weighing about 40 pounds. This is especially important to females who pay close attention to males with larger antlers, usually gathering around to pursue them. Healthy bulls with large antlers are great at winning battles and dominating small herds. Males typically shed antlers in March and grow them back in May, which they’ll use during clashes to determine who gets to mate with whom. Elk measure 4 to 5 feet tall and weigh anywhere between 300 to 1,100 pounds. Their coat ranges from light tan in the summer to a darker brown coat during winter; typically their neck and legs are darker than the rest of their body. Males have a thicker, darker mane on their neck. Elk calls include barks, mews, squeals, grunts, coughs, and the bugle, which can be heard through the mountains during breeding season. Look for elk in dense forests and open spaces, such as aspen groves, mountain meadows, and desert valleys.

Reindeer 

Image: www.56thparallel.com

Image: www.56thparallel.com

Famous for pulling Santa’s sleigh, reindeer don’t actually fly (shocking, we know), but they are good swimmers! Reindeer are considered domesticated caribou that travel in herds or roam within pastured land. Their furry, hollow hairs provide a cozy insulation during the cold. And like us, their noses take in cold air and turn it into warm air! Their fur color varies, from brownish to white depending on range and season. Prehistoric nomads relied on reindeer herds for their meat, hides, antlers, milk and most of all, transportation. These practices are still found in the Arctic and Europe, most notably Alaska and Siberia (See Nenets herding reindeer in Siberia). Female or cow reindeer are the exception to the rule; they grow antlers unlike other female deer. Male reindeer (bulls) shed their antlers in December whereas females shed their antlers in the summer. This means come Christmastime, females will be pulling Santa’s sleigh. Reindeer communicate by making a clicking sound with their knees as they walk, making a discernible sound even from ten meters away. Bulls measure about 80 inches in length and weigh between 200 and 650 pounds. Females are smaller at 71 to 84 inches in length, weighing 180 to 260 pounds. Their antlers can reach 39 inches in width and 53 inches in length.

 Caribou

Caribou

Image: www.images.huffingtonpost.com

Reindeer and caribou share similar characteristics; after all, they’re cousins. Their paths diverged during the last Ice Age. Caribou are the wild ones, while reindeer prefer the comfort of home. In North America, reindeer are called caribou, though the names are used interchangeably. Caribou travel more than 600 miles along annual routes, sometimes going up to 3,000 miles during winter migration— the longest migration among mammals. Like their cousins, they survive mainly on lichen, and can be found roaming in forests, mountains, and in the tundra up north. Their hooves are perfect for harsh winters, and allow them to dig through snow for moss. Reindeer and caribou that still have antlers late in the year are known to be pregnant. Their antlers come in handy when defending their food and scaring off larger caribou from suitable areas meant for their offspring. The woodland caribou is considered endangered in the U.S., with only a few surviving south of the Canadian border.

Moose

Image: www. images7.alphacoders.com/406/406934.jpg

Image: www. images7.alphacoders.com

Moose are easily discernible by their massive antlers, which measure up to 6 feet in length. Antlers are true only for males, and noticeable after one year of age, as they continue to grow. As in other deer, growing antlers are covered with soft, furry skin called “velvet.” Moose antlers are broad and flat with finer pointed edges. After reaching maturity, moose antlers start to recede each year until it dies. If antlers are not present, moose are easily recognized by their long face and loose skin hanging under their throat, making them appear sad. Moose use their antlers during mating season to intimidate competitors and spar with rivals (called rut), and make calls (bellows) to woo females. Adult male coats differ from young ones: adult moose are dark brown, and young ones are reddish brown. Their keen sense of smell, hearing and swimming ability makes up for their poor eyesight, so don’t underestimate them. Moose are tall, so expect them to be hiding out in high grasses and shrubs; lowering their heavy heads to ground level is rather difficult. During winter they eat shrubs and pinecones, but also mosses and lichens.

To see where all these wild deer roam, download our Pocket Ranger® mobile apps to find a state park near you. And if you spot a cool deer, share it on our social media sites, like our Pocket Ranger® or Trophy Case Instagram accounts.

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