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Large, deerlike, the males with large, usually six-pointed antlers that are shed annually; hair on neck long and shaggy; upperparts buffy fawn, the head, neck, legs and belly dull rusty brown to blackish; large rump patch creamy buff to whitish; metatarsal gland oval, about 75 mm long, the center white; tail a mere rudiment. Dental formula: I 0/3, C 1/1, Pm 3/3, M 3/3 X 2 = 34. External measurements average: (males) total length, about 2 m; tail, 160 mm; hind foot, 670 mm. Weight, up to 300 kg, averaging about 275 kg. Females are smaller and usually without antlers.
Habitat & Diet
Elk formerly inhabited the plains region of the western United States in winter and open, forested areas in summer. They migrated from one to the other seasonally. Now, they are forced by land-use practices into yearlong use of the mountainous regions. Lack of adequate winter range is one of the big obstacles to the increase or even maintenance of elk on much of their former range.
Elk are both grazers and browsers. Palatability studies in northern Idaho revealed that the "key forage species" on the summer range are willow, maple, broom grass, rye grass, and elk sedge. Serviceberry, mountain ash, and bitter cherry also were heavily utilized browse species. There is limited information about their food habits in Texas . In the Guadalupe Mountains , they feed on mountain mahogany, agaves, and several species of grasses.
Breeding activities increase until mid-September and close by November. Adult bulls start into the rut excessively fat, but they usually emerge in poor physical condition. This emaciation is due to the fact that for the 6 week rutting season the larger bulls have little time to eat or even sleep because they are constantly on the alert to ward off the younger bulls. Old bulls do not ordinarily stay with the same harems throughout the breeding period but move from one herd to another. It frequently happens that the larger bulls become so exhausted that they retire from the herd for a time to recuperate. Toward the close of the rutting season the larger bulls desert the cows for good and seek seclusion.
The average gestation period of elk is about 8 1 /2 months (249-262 days). The main caving period extends from about the middle of May to the middle of June; the number of young is almost invariably one. At birth the calf is long-legged and reddish-brown in color, with interspersed white spots on the back and sides. The rump patch is poorly defined. For the first few days the calves are rather helpless and, except for the feeding periods, remain hidden beside logs, under bushes, or in other places. When about 2 weeks old they are able to follow the females; soon after that the mother and her young one rejoin the main herd. At the age of 1 month elk calves eat grass and other vegetation, and when 2 or 3 months old they graze regularly with the adults. Weaning evidently does not take place until October or even after the rutting season. Sexual maturity in females ordinarily is not reached until the second year. Bulls do not enter actively into the rut until they are about 3 years old.
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