Elk have special
adaptations that help them to survive in the habitat in which they live.
Think about what an elk eats, grasses, shrubs, and trees including limbs
and bark. Now remember how much of this an elk has to eat. Do you think
an ordinary stomach could handle all
of that? No, you're right. An elk has a special stomach to digest all
the food it takes in. An elk's stomach actually has four parts. To understand
how this "super stomach" works, imagine the unchewed things an elk eats
sliding into a large chamber of the stomach. Here up to 15 pounds of food
is stored. Part, but not all, of the food can be broken down. Later, usually
when resting, the elk regurgitates or brings back up the food. This is
known as cud. Chewing cud refers
to chewing more thoroughly this food that is brought back up. When it
is completely chewed, the elk swallows it again. The food particles pass
through the large part of the stomach and into a second chamber for even
more digestion. Then the food passes into a third chamber where water
is squeezed out and absorbed into the elk's body. Finally the food passes
into the fourth and "true" stomach where it is broken down to the level
that it can be absorbed by the intestine.
also play an important role in the elk's eating
habits. Elk have sharp incisors for biting off plants and broad, flat
molars for mashing plants. Molars line both the upper and lower jaw, but
incisors occur only on the lower jaw. Teeth help biologists indicate an
animal's approximate age. A cross section of an elk's tooth will show
annual growth rings, just like a tree.
you see a giraffe, it is probably obvious to you why it has a long neck.
Elk have long necks to help the elk stretch to eat leaves and branches
and to stretch towards the ground for grasses.
other special characteristics do elk have to make life easier for them?
Think first about some of the things that would cause difficulty for an
elk. Elk need to be able to protect themselves from predators and cold
weather. An elk's coat can help with both. Its
color is light brown. This can help with camouflage. Most importantly
though, an elk's coat helps keep it warm or cool depending on the season.
Twice a year, elk shed every hair on their body. Their spring shedding
is noticeable because old winter hair dangles like long scraggly beards
from their necks and sides. By July their winter coat is completely replaced
by their summer coat. This coat has just one layer of hair. Longer, darker
hair begins appearing on their heads and necks sometime in early September.
An elk's winter coat is five times warmer than its summer coat. It consists
of two layers - thick, long guard hairs and a dense woolly undercoat.
An elk's ability to grow the coat it needs is another adaptation for survival.
is high on a list of survival needs for an elk. Out running danger is
an elk's best defense against predators. An elk's body is built for speed.
Their long legs are packed with muscles that are perfect for running.
Elk are able to take long, graceful strides. Before running from danger,
an elk must sense the danger is near.
ears help the elk to hear any noises that might indicate trouble.
Eyes located on the sides of their head help them to have a wider
range of vision. They may not see objects as well as we do, but they are
very good at detecting movement.
Back to the Facts
spring, male deer and bull elk begin growing antlers from bony bumps on
their heads. It takes an elk four or five months to completely grow a
set of antlers. Antlers begin as layer upon layer of cartilage that slowly
mineralizes into bone. They are light and easily damaged until late summer
when they completely turn into bone. The antlers are covered with a thin
skin called velvet. The velvet is covered
with fine, short hairs and contains thousands of blood vessels, which
carry calcium and minerals needed for building strong bones. Once the
velvet is gone, grooves and ridges on the antlers mark the paths of veins
that carried blood throughout the antlers. An antler grows faster than
any other kind of bone. It can grow up to one inch a day during the summer.
By summer's end, a set of elk antlers may be as much as 4 feet long, with
a spread about as long and weigh up to 40 pounds. Bull elk shed their
antlers every spring. The antlers fall off after being carried around
for six or seven months. Testosterone, the hormone that was responsible
for sending the message to grow antlers, drops like a rock during the
spring. This causes the antlers to fall off. It seems to startle the bull
when the antlers fall off. The stumps on the forehead where the antlers
fall off bleed a little, but they soon heal and the cycle begins again.
you notice large antlers with tines branching out from a main beam,
you are looking at a bull elk. Bull elk grow antlers each season to let
cow elk know how strong and successful they are. A mature bull elk carries
a set of antlers that may have as many as six tines. Spikes, or
second year elk, have a 10 - 20 inch set of antlers that are slim and
Back to the Facts
No one likes to see an animal suffer, but
during the winter many animals struggle to survive. The main reasons are
that their winter fat reserves have been used up and they cannot find
enough food to eat. It seems like the simple answer would be to provide
food to these
Providing animals with food during the
winter has positive
impacts. A lot of things need to be considered before doing this,
studying animals, biologists look more at the populations of the species
rather than the individual animals.
Feeding may be necessary in some areas
because it keeps elk away from private property where hungry elk could
cause a great deal of damage. Another necessary reason to feed
is to keep animals off busy roads. In areas where winter range
has been lost completely, feeding animals is necessary to "save the
One of the downsides of winter feeding
is that the animals come to depend on it every year. They will stop
migrating to areas that have had enough food in the past. When animals
are crowded together, such as in a winter feeding operation, diseases
can spread easily from one animal to another. Winter feeding is also
expensive. Last year about $442,000 was spent on winter feeding.
The type of feed is also important to consider. Deer who are only given
hay can actually starve to death because their stomachs aren't made
to digest hay.