Differences between an Elk and a Reindeer

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Elk and Reindeer have a lot to share in common. They are ranging from the fact that they are both large-bodied deer species because they are both ungulates. Telling an Elk from a Reindeer from a distance may prove to be a difficult task. And this is particularly true if you aren’t familiar with the deer species. The two are almost the same size in height, and both have antlers that you may not easily distinguish from a distance. 

With so many similarities tying these two, you may be yearning to know what tells them apart after all. We will learn about the two animals and make it easier for you to understand them and distinguish one from the other. Let’s have a look at them individually first.

The Elk

You will realize that an Elk is somehow larger than a Reindeer at a closer look and observation. It is just larger than a Reindeer, but it is also the largest of all the red deer species and one of the largest in the entire deer species. An Elk is known as a Wapiti in the European countries, and it bears the scientific name Cervus Canadensis.  You may check out our article on Elk calling here.

Body Size and Weight

An Elk can attain a maximum height of up to 1.5m (5ft) tall from the ground with its withers. The males have antlers, which can rise to 1.2m (4 feet) from the head. These antlers make it easier to distinguish them from other species at a closer look. When you combine the wither height and that of the antlers, you get a total height of 2.75m (9ft) from the ground. That is taller than any normal human being.

Male Elks weigh more than the females with their average weight falling between 225 to 600kg, about 500 to 1,300 pounds. Another distinguishing and outstanding feature is their shaggy necks, which quickly sets them apart from other deer species. They have an interesting coat that changes color and thickness in relation to the climate. They, however, maintain darker necks and pale rumps.


You are more likely to find Elks in the mountainous forests in North America and East Asia. Mostly you will find them along the forest edges grazing. Most of those found in America have adopted a desert and semi-desert lifestyle in regions like the Great Plains. They travel in large herds for protection and can run at a top speed of about 70km/h (45mi/h).


The sound that male Elks make not only distinguishes them from the Reindeers but also the Moose and other deer species. The males have a loud, high-pitched bugle, which they sound in the mornings and evenings.


Elks are primarily grazers just like cattle; they are ruminants, and therefore whatever they eat passes through the four-chambered stomachs for digestion. Just so they do not lose their deer touch, Elks also browse like other deer. They mostly feed in the mornings and evenings when it is cool and peaceful. They also take some slight pauses in sheltered areas during feeding to digest what they have eaten.

Their diet mainly includes native grasses as a year-round supplement and tree barks preserved for winters. In a day, an Elk can consume up to 9.1 kilograms of various vegetation on average. Their appetite for the aspen trees in the spring has somehow led to the decline of these trees in places where the Elks exist.

Parasites and Diseases

Elks are always at risk of attacks from various parasites and diseases. The brain worm or meningeal worm, for instance, affects the spinal cord and brain tissues of elks, which leads to death. The parasite, which lives in snails and slugs, gets into the elk when it consumes a snail or slug during grazing.

The chronic wasting disease has been a threatening and a killer disease among the elk species. It is transmitted by a misfolded protein known as a prion. The disease attacks and affects the brain tissue in elk. An elk with the disease will show symptoms such as increased dehydration, weight loss, listlessness, and disorientation. In advanced stages, the elks mostly succumb to the disease. 

Elks are at risk of attack from up to 53 species of animal parasites and protists. When you add diseases to this, the lifespan of elks remains a paltry 10 to 13 years.


During the spring season, elks tend to migrate into higher altitude regions to escape from the retreating snows. The hunting pressure also impacts Their movement patterns as they are a favorite of hunters. When winter knocks, they tend to move to the wooded areas where they can shelter from the wind. The tree backs also act as their meals during this period.

The Reindeer

A closer look at a Reindeer will disclose a lot, including how smaller it is compared to an Elk. The Reindeer is also known as Caribou, and it bears the scientific name Rangifer tarandus. They have a varying color of the skin depending on the season and subspecies. The northern population that is usually relatively small is whiter in color while the southern population is darker and more.

Fur and Hairs 

Their coats have two layers of fur with the inner layer consisting of dense and woolly hairs and the outer one hollow and air-filled. The Reindeer depends mainly on their fur to regulate their body temperature in relation to their environment.

Body Size and Weight

The reindeer are lighter in weight and smaller in size as compared to the elks. A female reindeer measures 1.62 to 2.05 meters long and weighs about 80 to 120 kg (180-260 lb.) The males or bulls are always larger than females in size, with a bull measuring about 1.8 to 2.14 meters long. They are also heavier than the females with an average weight of between 159 to 182 kg (351-401 lb.). Sometimes, larger males weigh up to 318 kg, which is exceptionally huge for a reindeer.

The reindeer’s weight is also dependent on the seasons where the males sometimes lose up to 40% of their total weight in different seasons. The height of a reindeer from the shoulder to the ground varies from around o.85 to 1.5 meters. Their tails are considerably short, measuring about 14 to 20 cm long.


You will quickly identify a reindeer as it walks by since most of their subspecies have knees designed to make a clicking sound as they walk. The sound, which comes from their knees’ tendons, can be audible from as far as 10m away. The sound occurs when the reindeer’s full weight of the foot is on the ground or lifted from the ground. 


Reindeer’s original habitat included Greenland, Scandinavia, Mongolia, Russia, Eastern Europe, and Northern China. It was also found in North America in Alaska, Canada, Washington, and Maine.  They migrate in large numbers when seasons change with up to 1,000,000 reindeers in a single herd during a migration. 


Reindeers are also ruminants with four stomach chambers. Lichens are their main diet composition in winter with reindeer lichen as their specific preference. They have unique bacteria and protozoa in their gut that helps them to metabolize lichens. They are the only animals with the enzyme lichenase that help break down lichen into glucose for absorption into the body. They also feed on leaves, grasses, sedges, willows, and birches. 

Their strange eating habits include eating their fallen antlers for calcium and feeding on small rodents, fish, and bird eggs when they are undergoing stress. In late summer, reindeers have been found to feed on mushrooms for additional nutrition.


The reindeer is the only deer species with both males and females growing antlers. Antler formation in female reindeers is made possible with the hormone Androgen. Their atherogenic genes have more attraction to the androgens making the antlers grow in the females. The sizes of the antlers in both males and females differ in the subspecies.

After the moose, the bull reindeers’ antlers are considered the largest in all the deer species. The male antlers measure 1m wide and 1.35m in beam length. Antlers in both males and females start growing between March and June in a process known as antlerogenesis. 

Predators and Parasites

Several predators prey on reindeers, including hunters who are a significant threat to the reindeer’s population. The calves are at a danger of attack from the golden eagles which attack from the air and the wolverines attacking from the ground. The polar bears and brown bears will hunt and kill reindeers of all ages but will target the herd’s weakest for an easy kill.

Several insects have also posed a threat to the reindeers as they attack and cause enough stress that inhibits feeding and calving behavior in reindeers. The most common insect attacks come from mosquitoes, black flies, deer botflies, reindeer warble fly, and reindeer nose botfly.  These insects’ effects are devastating and can cause an adult reindeer to lose up to 1 liter of blood in a week.

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The differences between an Elk and a Reindeer are numerous, and setting them apart cannot be a daunting task any longer. While a few of the differences are visible upon short-term observation, most of them will demand you carry out some deeper study on both. If you love game meat then, I guess you will have to understand the differences better when you sample their meats.

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