January 21, 2003

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Bugling Elk
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      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.

     Teeth 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.

     When 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.

     What 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.

     Speed 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.

     Big 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.

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Each 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.

If 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 unbranched.

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 animals.
      Providing animals with food during the winter has positive and negative impacts. A lot of things need to be considered before doing this, however.
When 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 herds."
      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.

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