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Elk vs. Deer: 8 Key Differences Explained

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All elk are deer, but not all deer are elk. If this sentence is difficult to understand, don't worry, we will help you clear up your doubts. The word "deer" has a wide range of meanings, but in conversations about elk and deer, it refers to any deer that is not an elk. This is an important distinction because both deer and elk belong to the same family, the cervidae, which includes other hoofed ruminants such as moose, muntjac, and reindeer (also known as reindeer). They are primarily vegetarian, and the males grow antlers, which they shed and regenerate periodically throughout their lives. That said, despite these similarities, there are many differences that distinguish elk from deer.

In this article, we'll help you understand how to tell the difference between these two species. We'll discuss the 8 key attributes that differentiate elk from deer and answer some frequently asked questions in case we forget anything. When we're done, you'll understand that while elk and deer look similar, they also have unique characteristics. Here are 8 key differences between elk and deer.

Comparing Elk and Deer

Elk deer
size 3 to 5 feet tall
375 to 1,100 lbs
2 to 4 feet tall
100 to 400 lbs
Habitat forested mountains Grasslands, plains, deserts and forests
antlers Longer branching antlers up to 4 feet Antlers with shorter spikes or branches
coat and color Thick coat fluffy hair and mane brown and gray Short coat without mane brown or red with white parts that turn gray in winter
speed up to 45 miles per hour 30 to 45 miles per hour, depending on species
diet Grass, weeds, bark, branches and shrubs Leaves, twigs, fruit, nuts, grasses, corn, alfalfa, sedges, lichens, and fungi
sound Loud horn calls, especially in males Bleats, grunts, and high-pitched squeals
track Two parallel halves of a tooth shape beautiful heart

8 Key Differences Between Elk and Deer

molting elk animal
Elk tend to grow larger than deer and have larger antlers and shaggier fur.

© Ghost Bear/Shutterstock.com

Elk and Deer: Size

The most notable difference between elk and deer is their respective body sizes. On average, elk are much larger than common deer such as white-tailed deer, red deer, roe deer and mule deer. Elk have a stockier, more muscular build with higher shoulders. Males can weigh between 400 and 1,100 pounds, while females typically weigh between 375 and 650 pounds. They stand between 3 and 5 feet tall, although some particularly long-legged elk can grow taller. Also, most deer are only 2 to 4 feet tall when standing. Also, deer don't weigh nearly as much as elk. Typically, bucks weigh between 100 and 300 pounds, but large deer can weigh up to 450 pounds. Standing side by side, it's easy to spot the stark difference in height and weight between elk and deer.

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Elk and Deer: Habitat

Contrary to popular belief, elk and deer prefer different habitats. In general, elk prefer to live in forested mountains, although they tend to avoid denser forests for more open, wooded areas. They may migrate between elevations throughout the seasons, spending more time at higher elevations during certain times of the year than others. Meanwhile, deer live in a more diverse range of habitats, including deserts, plains, grasslands, woodlands, and tundra. Like elk, some species may migrate with the seasons. Also, their distributions are slightly different. Elk are found throughout North America, Central and East Asia, while deer also live in Europe, South Asia and South America.

Elk and Deer: Antlers

Although they look similar, there are some differences in the antlers of male elk and deer. When considering elk and deer of the same age, elk have larger antlers. Mature elk antlers can weigh up to 20 pounds each and be up to 4 feet long. They may also contain more branches than the antlers of deer of the same age. Deer antlers are smaller than elk antlers at all ages. Also, fawn's antlers contain fewer branches and look more like spikes than elk. As deer mature, their antlers tend to grow more shoots that curve slightly inward, toward their face.

Elk and Deer: Fur and Color

The fur of elk and deer looks similar at first glance, but look closely and you'll notice many small details that set them apart. Typically, elk grow thicker and longer fur than deer. Additionally, elk have a shaggy mane that grows around their upper chest and neck, which helps them stay warm during winter and in the colder climates that elk typically inhabit. Their coats tend to appear brown and gray, while their legs appear darker. Given that many deer species live in warmer climates, they typically grow shorter fur than elk. Also, most deer wear a uniform coat and don't have a long mane like elk. Deer come in a variety of colors, from brown to red to beige. However, many deer species change color in winter, and their fur will appear grayer to match their surroundings.

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Elk and Deer: Speed

Both elk and deer can run at great speed and have historically been known as agile animals. However, the maximum speed of elk versus deer may vary depending on the species used for comparison. At top speed, elk can reach speeds of up to 45 mph, although they can only maintain that speed for short periods of time. Meanwhile, most deer species can reach top speeds of 30 to 45 miles per hour. White-tailed deer, for example, can reach speeds of up to 35 mph, while there is evidence of mule deer reaching speeds of up to 45 mph.

Elk and Deer: Diet

Although both are herbivores, the diets of elk and deer differ in some ways. Elk live primarily on grass, twigs, bark, weeds and shrubs. In particular, they prefer certain grasses, weeds, and bark such as bluegrass, wheatgrass, clover, geranium, iris, aspen, choke, cherry, and oak. While deer also eat grasses, weeds, twigs and bark in large quantities, they also like to eat other foods. For example, deer also like to eat leaves, fruit, nuts, corn, and alfalfa. Also, they may eat lichens or fungi, especially during the thinner winter months.

Elk and Deer: Sounds

Even non-hunters and laymen can easily distinguish the sounds made by elk and deer. Elk, especially male elk, make loud, distinctive horn calls. These calls can vary from a high-pitched bark to a deep guttural sound. Although deer are usually quiet and rarely vocalize, they can still make distinctive sounds. Typically, deer vocalizations are rougher and sharper than those made by elk. Hobbyists often describe deer calls as bleats, similar to those made by goats, or as high-pitched squeals.

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Elk and Deer: Footprints

One final difference between elk and deer is their tracks. Both elk and deer are hoofed ruminants, meaning they grow hooves made of hard keratin, the same material as human fingernails. However, elk and deer tracks look very different. Elk tracks are tooth-shaped and consist of two parallel circular halves side by side. Meanwhile, deer trails look more heart-shaped. They also appear more delicate, due to the deer's lighter build and softer footsteps.

Frequently Asked Questions About Elk and Deer

Deer tend to grow smaller than elk, even though they are both in the same family.

©iStock.com/EEI_Tony

How many types of deer are there?

There are currently 43 species of deer.

Do all male deer have antlers?

Almost all male deer have antlers, with the exception of the Chinese sambar, which have protruding tusks. In addition, female reindeer also grow antlers.

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elk vs deer
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