Caribou vs. Elk: 11 Key Differences, Pros & Cons, Explanation

Caribou and elk are pensive mammals and are part of the Cervidae family. However, they are different species.

Elk are larger than caribou and have a different coat. Caribou also have large antlers for defense, while elk use their antlers for mating rituals. 

Caribou and elk may look similar, but the two animals have some big differences.

For one, elk belong to the Cervus Canadensis species while caribou belong to the Rangifer Tarandus specie. Size-wise, elk are also much larger than caribou.

What is an Elk?

Elk – sometimes called the “wapiti” – is a Native American animal, and the word translates to “white rump.” They can alter color depending on the season. During the summer, they have a light tan, but during winter months, they become dark brown.

Elk are the largest species of deer, weighing anywhere from 325 to 1100 pounds. At one time, they were found in mountainous North American and East Asian forests, but they have since been introduced to new habitats like Australia, New Zealand, and Argentina.

Elk are highly social animals that often live in packs as large as 400 individuals, which are called gangs. Elk are typically found in lowland forests and habitats in forest mountains.

You’ll also see them near marshes, lakes, and bushlands. Male elk – sometimes called bulls – sport antlers. They are twice as heavy as females or cows.

Mating season for elk typically begins in September, as this is the time mature bulls fight for the attention of cows. This is done by making bugles, which are high-pitched noises.

Cows are usually attracted to bulls that frequently bugle and make the loudest sounding pitches. After mating, a cow’s gestation period is typically between 240 and 262 days. Once this time ends, cows birth calves that tend to weigh up to 35 lb.

Caribou vs. Elk

Elk antlers are some of the quickest-growing bones in the animal kingdom, capable of growing up to 1 inch daily in the summertime.

Male elk shed their antlers each March, growing new sets in May, and weigh as much as 40 pounds. New antlers tend to be covered in velvet, which helps insulate them during cold winter.

What is a Caribou?

A caribou is a type of deer found across North America’s boreal forests and Arctic tundra, Alaska, Northern Europe, Asia, and Greenland. They vary significantly in color and size, with males weighing up to 400lbs and females averaging 355lbs.

Caribou and Elk have many differences, the most notable being the size of their antlers. Caribou antlers are much bigger than elk, and both males and females possess them.

In Scandinavian populations, elder male Caribou shed their antlers in December, while younger males shed theirs in early Spring. Females shed their antlers in summer. This is in contrast to elk, in which only males have antlers.

Caribou has a nose that is coated entirely in short hair. This hair helps to keep the cold air relatively warm as it comes in. Caribou are known as seasonal breeders and usually mate in early Autumn.

Male caribou battle one another for female access. Two males will lock antlers and try to force each other back. The victorious male can mate with up to 20 females.

Caribou are unique creatures that love to consume mosses and lichens. Some caribou are darkly grey, while others are darkly brown. You’ll find white patches on the neck, abdomen, forehead, beneath the tail, and sides surrounding the feet.

An elk’s entire body is coated with two full layers – a woolly dense undercoat and an overcoat of long hair comprised of air-filled hollow hairs. This allows them to endure harsh (cold) climates.

Caribou vs. Elk

To Which Families Belongs Elk And Caribou?

Elk and caribou are both part of the family of Cervidae, meaning they are both herbivores that mainly eat shrubs, grasses, trees, and leaves.

Elk are typically held captive for velvet collection and hunting, while caribou are mostly found in the wild. Velvet shed by the antlers of a male elk is collected, then used for medicinal purposes, while caribou antlers are often used as decorative pieces.

Elk hides are used to make footwear and warm clothes, while caribou fur is mostly used for making hats and other garments. Antlers are used as ornamental pieces nowadays, while elk skin belts, shoes, and gloves are used regularly.

Are Caribou and Elk Social Animals?

Caribou and Elk are both social animals who travel in groups. However, Caribou typically travel in herds of hundreds, while Elk travel in smaller groups.

Caribou are commercially used for their hides, meat, milk, antlers, and even transportation for Arctic citizens.

Comparison Chart

BasisCaribouElk
IntroductionIs a smaller than Elk in size mammal (belongs to the family Cervidae)The largest living mammal (belongs to the family Cervidae) on Earth
Found InFound across the Arctic tundra and boreal forest of North America, Asia, Europe, and GreenlandFound in North America and Eastern Asia, also can be seen in such countries like Australia, Argentina, and New Zealand
Height33 – 60 inches tall56 – 68 inches tall
Weight350 – 400lbs650 – 850lbs
AntlersCaribous males and females have antlers, and they are much larger than elksOnly the elk males have antlers that are smaller than caribous
FurThe color of the caribou’s fur varies and depends on seasons and subspecies. Caribous from the Northern areas are smaller and have white fur while Caribous from Southern areas are larger and darker in colorElks have a reddish hue to their hair coloring along with it, and there are large buff-colored rump patches and smaller tails
HoovesThe hooves of Caribous change according to the climate. During summer, when the tundra is soft and wet, its feet become spongy to provide extra protection. During winter – the foot-pads get a shrink, exposes the rim of the hoof which enables them to cut the ice and prevent it from slippingElks possess an even number and same type of toes on each foot. They’re quite similar to camels, cattle, and goats.
DietAre also herbivorous. They eat lichens in the winter, willow leaves, birches, sledges, and grasses in the summer.Are herbivorous. They eat grasses, plants, leaves, and barks.
MigrationCaribous are migrators. They can move up to 5,000 km a year and can run at speeds of 37 – 49 mph.Elks love travel from low valley meadows to high mountain grazing grounds
GroupA group of Caribous is called « Herd »Are social animals, they live in large groups « gangs »
Life SpanCan live up to 15 years in the wildCan live up to 8 to 12 years in the wild and about 20 years or even more in the captivity

The Key Differences Between Caribou and Elk

To truly compare and contrast these two animals, here are a few of the key differences that separate them.

Caribou vs Elk: Size

An adult elk is taller and weighs more than an adult caribou. Specifically, an adult elk can grow to a height ranging from 56 to 68 inches from its hooves to its withers.

Alternatively, a caribou measures from 34 to 62 inches tall. In terms of weight, an adult male elk ranges from 325 to 1100 pounds while an adult male caribou weighs from 350 to 400 pounds.

Female elks, also known as cows, are much smaller in size varying between 500 to 600 pounds and stand up to 45 inches in height. While the female caribou weighs between 175 to 225 pounds and 33 inches in height.

Caribou vs Elk: Lifespan

The lifespan of these two mammals accounts for another difference between them. Normally, elk don’t live as long as caribou. The lifespan of an elk is 8 to 12 years whereas a caribou’s lifespan ranges from 12 to 15 years.

During their lifespans, both species rely on herds for help locating food, protection, and other support. Elk and caribou are sometimes known to migrate during the winter months. Both types of animal give birth to one calf at a time about once per year.

Caribou vs Elk: Habitat

Another difference between these two animals has to do with habitat. Many caribou live on the Arctic tundra.

They have an undercoat with a wooly texture along with an upper coat that repels moisture that helps to keep them warm.

Also, a caribou’s hooves are broad and flat allowing them to keep their balance while walking across snow and ice.

Elk live in forests, meadows, and sometimes near swampy areas. Their narrow, cloven hooves help them to walk on the soft, moist ground of their woodland habitat.

Caribou vs Elk: Species

Though elk and caribou belong to the same Cervidae family, they are different species. The scientific name of an elk is Cervus canadensis. The scientific name of a caribou is Rangifer tarandus.

There are seven subspecies of caribou. These include:

  • Barren-ground caribou (Rangifer tarandus granti)
  • Svalbard caribou (R.t platyrhynchus)
  • European caribou (R.t. tarandus)
  • Finnish forest reindeer (R.t. fennicus)
  • Greenland caribou (R.t. groenlandicus)
  • Woodland caribou (R.t. caribou)
  • Peary caribou (R.t. pearyi)

The six subspecies of elk in North America include:

  • Roosevelt’s elk (C. c. roosevelti)
  • Tule elk (C. c. nannodes)
  • Manitoban elk (C. c. manitobensis)
  • Rocky Mountain elk (C. c. nelsoni)
  • Eastern elk (C. c. canadensis; extinct)
  • Merriam’s elk (C. c. merriami; extinct)

Caribou vs Elk: Coat

Caribou and elk have different colored fur. In fact, the fur coat of each animal changes color depending on the season of the year.

Elk can have a gray or even a white coat in the wintertime. When the season changes, an elk sheds its winter coat and takes on reddish-brown fur for the spring and summer.

A caribou’s coat can be silvery-white or light brown during the winter season. The color varies with different types of caribou. In the summertime, a caribou’s coat turns light to dark brown.

Caribou vs Elk: Antlers

In terms of size, a caribou’s antlers are larger than an elk’s antlers. There’s also a difference in shape. Caribou have C-shaped antlers whereas elk have long, tall antlers featuring several points.

Caribous also have the largest antlers among all deer species. The adult male caribou sheds their antlers in December, young ones in spring and the females shed in summer. Elks shed their antlers in March and regrow them in the month of May.

Caribou vs Elk: Sounds

Most animals have some ways to communicate with one another. Caribou and elk both communicate but with different sounds.

An elk is known for its bugling sounds during the breeding season. This sound is high-pitched and has been compared to a whistling howl. Alternatively, a caribou uses grunts to communicate with the members of its herd.

Caribou vs. Elk

Caribou vs Elk: Hoof Shape

Caribou are able to survive on the Arctic tundra due to several adaptations. One of those adaptations involves their hooves.

They are broad and flat which allows them to step across the slippery ground without losing their balance and falling.

An elk’s hooves are narrower in design and cloven so they can walk on the moist grass, mud, or dry ground in their forest habitat.

Conclusion: Caribou vs. Elk Main Differences

  • Caribou live in the Arctic and boreal regions of Europe, Asia, Greenland, and North America. Elk are primarily found in North America and East Asia.
  • Elk are bigger than caribou. At the withers, an adult elk is between 56 and 58 inches tall. Elk adults can weigh up to 830 pounds. On the other hand, adult caribou are usually between 34 and 62 inches tall at the withers and weigh between 355 and 400 pounds.
  • Elk and caribou both travel long distances, but caribou don’t move as far as elk.
  • Caribou have short hair all over their noses, but elk don’t have any hair on their noses.

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