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Regions > Canadian Domain > Wapiti, American elk

Wapiti, American elk

Location at the Zoo: Canadian Domain


North America, Eurasia









Scientific Name:

Cervus canadensis


: The American elk, or Wapiti, is one of the largest species of deer in the world, second only in size to the moose (Alces alces). Males and females have large, clearly defined buff coloured rump patches (“wapiti” is the Shawnee Indian word “waapiti” meaning “white rump”). The coat is coarse and changes in thickness between winter and summer. The colouring of the coat ranges from a light grey-brown in winter time to reddish brown in summer. The tail is short and wedge shaped. They have sturdy bodies and long legs. Males have long neck hairs.

There is pronounced sexual dimorphism between males and females; females do not have antlers. Adult stags have majestic antlers which begin to grow in April; they are covered in “velvet” which is rubbed off in late August, early September. Males shed these antlers each year in February or March. They re-grow, increasing in size each year. They weigh up to 18kg. Males are larger in size and are almost twice the weight of females. An average female weighs 225 kg whereas males range from 265 – 500 kg. Males measure up to 140 cm (to the shoulder), females measure up to 130 cm. Elk have an even number of toes on each foot, similar to those of cattle. They are a ruminant species, with a four chambered stomach.


: Elk are native to North America and eastern Asia but have adapted well in countries where they have been introduced including New Zealand, Australia and Argentina. In Canada, some herds exist on the prairies of south-east Manitoba, as well as in British Columbia and on Vancouver Island. They have been introduced into the area north of Lake Nipigon and Algonquin Park. In the U.S. there are controlled herds in the states of Kentucky, North Carolina, and Tennessee as well as both Virginia and West Virginia.


: Wapitis are flexible in their choice of habitat. They range in forest and forest-edge habitat similar to other deer species. In mountainous regions, they prefer the open areas of the alpine pastures, staying at higher elevations during the summer and migrating to lower levels for the winter. They are quite adaptable seeking out marshy meadows, river flats, open prairies, and even semi-deserts in North America.


: They are herbivores feeding on grasses, forbs and tree sprouts during the summer. They are particularly fond of Aspen sprouts. In winter they feed on browse (twigs and bark) and whatever vegetation they can find under the snow.

Reproduction and Development

: Adult wapiti usually stay in single sex groups for most of the year. The bulls are polygamous (have multiple female mates), and during rut they display a rather spectacular behaviour. Mature bulls compete for the attention of the cows, attempting to create a harem. They roll in their own urine giving them a distinct smell which attracts the cows. Rival bulls challenge opponents by bellowing or bugling or even engage in antler wrestling. There are fierce fights for dominance if rivals cannot be intimidated by threat displays. A dominant bull will defend his harem of 20 or more cows from competing bulls as well as from predators. The rut season extends from mid-September to the end of October. Females have a short estrous cycle of only one or two days but if not fertilized the first time, they will have a series of additional periods until early November. The gestation period is 249 - 262 days. Calves are born in late May to early June. There is usually a single birth, very rarely two. The calf is fawn coloured with creamy spots on back and flanks and weighs about 17 kg. The spots disappear by the end of the summer. The calf will remain with the mother for about one year, leaving at the time when the next offspring makes its appearance. Wapiti live an average of 10 to 13 years in the wild, considerably longer in captivity.


: The wapiti has keen hearing and sight and can run up to 50 km/h, holding its head back so the eyes and nose are horizontal to the ground. It swims well. They migrate with the seasons to those areas where food is available. Wapiti have a tendency to do most of their feeding in the morning or early evening, seeking shelter in between feedings to chew the cud.

Threats to Survival

: Wapiti are hunted by wolves and cougars and are occasionally taken by grizzly and black bears. Calves are more vulnerable to predation. Hunting by humans is legal in many parts of its range. The biggest threat to wapiti is habitat lost due to human activities.


: IUCN: Not Listed; CITES: Not Listed;

Zoo Diet

: Herbivore cubes, alfalfa hay, salt blocks – cobalt iodized, salt blocks – plain, salt blocks – trace mineralized, and browse.