Eurasian elk (Alces alces)

Also known as: elk, Eurasian moose, European elk, Moose, Siberian elk
  
French: Élan
Spanish: Alce
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassMammalia
OrderCetartiodactyla
FamilyCervidae
GenusAlces (1)
SizeHead-body length: 240 - 310 cm (2)
Shoulder height: 140 - 235 cm (2)
Tail length: 5 - 12 cm (2)
Weight200 - 825 kg (2)

The Eurasian elk is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The Eurasian elk (Alces alces), together with its close relative the moose (Alces americanus), is the largest living deer species, and is easily recognised by its humped shoulders, broad, overhanging muzzle, and the pendulous flap of skin and hair, known as the ‘bell’, which hangs beneath the throat (2) (3) (4) (5). There is much debate over whether the Eurasian elk and the moose constitute separate species (1) (6), or are in fact a single species (1) (7). The two forms differ in features of the skull and antlers, in colouration and in chromosome number (5) (8), but hybridisation occurs between them in some areas (1) (5), and genetic analyses may not support distinct species status (7). A number of subspecies have been proposed (3) (4) (6).

Both the Eurasian elk and the moose have a heavy, deep body, with long legs, a relatively short tail (4) (5), and wide hooves, which aid in walking over mud or snow (9). The male Eurasian elk is larger than the female, and bears the bony, hornlike antlers. Initially covered in skin (‘velvet’), which is later rubbed off, the antlers are broad and flattened at the base, with short projecting branches, and are shed each winter and re-grown through the summer. The antlers of Eurasian elk and moose are the largest of any deer species, spanning up to 2 metres across and weighing as much as 30 kilograms. The coat of the Eurasian elk ranges from blackish to reddish brown, lighter on the underparts and lower legs, and consists of a fine wool undercoat interspersed with long guard hairs, providing excellent insulation. The winter coat, which is shed in spring, is duller and lighter in colour. Juveniles are reddish brown (2) (3) (4).

The Eurasian elk occurs in northern and eastern Europe, including Scandinavia, Poland and southern Czech Republic, east to the Yenisei River in Siberia, and south to Ukraine, northern Kazakhstan, northern China, and possibly parts of Mongolia (1) (2) (3) (6). The species is also occasionally recorded in Croatia, Hungary, Romania and Germany, but is extinct in Austria and parts of the Caucasus region (1) (6).

The Eurasian elk is found in a range of woodland habitats, from tundra to boreal forest (1) (5). It tends to prefer damp, marshy habitats close to water, and may also be found in open country, including farmland, if there is forest nearby. This species does well in areas of secondary growth, and may be expanding into areas where natural forest has been replaced by secondary woodland after logging (1).

Usually most active at dawn and dusk, the Eurasian elk feeds on a variety of tree, shrub and herb species, as well as twigs and bark in winter. Aquatic vegetation is also taken, the elk often wading into lakes and streams and sometimes submerging entirely to reach food. In addition, the diet may be supplemented with sodium from mineral licks (1) (2) (3) (4) (5). In some parts of its range, the Eurasian elk may undergo seasonal migrations in search of food (1) (2) (4). The Eurasian elk is a strong swimmer, and is capable of running at speeds of up to 56 kilometres per hour (2) (3), the long legs enabling it to negotiate deep snow and to easily trot over obstacles when fleeing predators such as wolves or bears (4) (5).

Although essentially solitary (2) (4), the Eurasian elk may form small, loose groups during winter (2) (5). The mating season, or rut, occurs in September and October, the males competing for females with elaborate displays and sometimes fights. Births occurs between May and June (2) (4), after a gestation period of 216 to 264 days (2). A single calf is usually born, although twins and sometimes triplets occur. The young elk weighs 11 to 16 kilograms at birth, and is able to browse and follow the female after 2 to 3 weeks, being weaned by about five months. The calf remains with the female for at least a year, and is driven away when the female next gives birth, although it may later rejoin the family for a further few months. Young Eurasian elk are capable of breeding after the first year if conditions are favourable, but males rarely gain an opportunity to mate until large enough to compete with older bulls (2) (4). Maximum lifespan may be up to 27 years (2).

The Eurasian elk has long been hunted for its meat, leather, bone and tendons, and is considered a game animal in much of its range, as well as being controlled as a pest of agriculture and forestry in many areas (1) (2) (4) (5). Overexploitation caused significant declines in the species in the 18th and 19th Centuries, but elk populations have since recovered, and are now increasing in Scandinavia and expanding into the Caucasus, aided in part by the species’ tolerance of secondary habitat (1) (2).

Elk are still hunted extensively for meat in Sweden (2), and, perhaps surprisingly, have even been domesticated in some areas for meat, milk, and as a best of burden, although the species has proved somewhat difficult to keep in good health in captivity (3) (5). Collisions with vehicles and trains are responsible for a significant number of Eurasian elk deaths (4), but there are not thought to be any other major threats to the species at present (1).

The Eurasian elk occurs in many protected areas across its range, and is protected under national legislation in a number of countries (1), as well as being listed on Appendix III of the Bern Convention (10). The species is also subject to intense management in some countries, such as Finland, through hunting quotas. The Eurasian elk remains widespread and abundant, despite fairly intense hunting pressure in some areas, and the future of this distinctive large deer is currently thought to be secure (1).

Find out more about the Eurasian elk and the moose:

Find out more about the conservation of deer species:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. IUCN Red List (September, 2009)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org
  2. Nowak, R.M. (1991) Walker’s Mammals of the World. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.
  3. Macdonald, D.W. (2006) The Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  4. Franzmann, A.W. (1981) Alces alces. Mammalian Species, 154: 1 - 7. Available at:
    http://www.science.smith.edu/departments/Biology/VHAYSSEN/msi/pdf/i0076-3519-154-01-0001.pdf
  5. Geist, V. (1998) Deer of the World: Their Evolution, Behavior, and Ecology. Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.
  6. Wilson, D.E. and Reeder, D.M. (2005) Mammal Species of the World. A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference. Third Edition. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore. Available at:
    http://www.bucknell.edu/MSW3/
  7. Hundertmark, K.J., Shields, G.F., Bowyer, R.T. and Schwartz, C.C. (2002) Genetic relationships deduced from cytochrome-b sequences among moose. Alces, 38: 113 - 122.
  8. Boeskorov, G.G. (1997) Chromosomal differences in moose. Genetika, 33(7): 974 - 978.
  9. Burnie, D. (2001) Animal. Dorling Kindersley, London.
  10. Council of Europe: Bern Convention (September, 2009)
    http://conventions.coe.int/Treaty/EN/Treaties/Html/104.htm