Elk - Majestic icons of Big Sky Country Elk, sometimes called wapiti, are the second largest member of the deer family.
The largest bull elk sport massive antlers that are shed and grown anew each spring -- a cycle driven by testosterone levels. New antlers begin to grow each spring as increasing levels in daylight trigger increasing levels of testosterone. Antlers are the fastest growing bones in nature. They can grow as much as one inch in a single day! While antlers are growing they are covered with velvet which helps protect the still-fragile growing antlers and carries blood to this growing bone tissue. The growth of antlers ceases in August and bull elk rub off the velvet covering their antlers in preparation for the rut (mating season).
The rut is triggered by photoperiod -- that is the amount of time an animal (or plant) is exposed to sunlight in a 24 hour period. This is true for all members of the deer family. It all has to do with sunlight affecting melatonin, testosterone, etc.
Cloud cover affects the amount of sunlight to which the elk are exposed. Hence, different populations that experience different amounts of sunlight, even at the same latitude, due to regional variations in cloud cover, can have the rut peak at different times.
Following the rut, around October, testosterone levels begin to drop. When testosterone levels reach their lowest point (in early spring), the antlers drop off. The pedicles, the point on the skull from which antlers grow, bleed a bit then heal. Increasing daylight again triggers testosterone levels to climb and the antler cycle continues.
The mating season of elk is referred to as the rut. During the rut, bull elk battle to assemble and protect a harem of cow elk. During the rut, Big Sky Country rings with the bugles of rutting elk. Cow elk remain in estrus for only a couple days. Bull elk monitor the status of the cows in their harem very carefully.
The gestational period of elk is eight and a half months, with the most dramatic fetal development of the calf occurring over the last six weeks of gestation. Cow elk deliver their calves from mid-May through July with variations depending on location. Typical regional peak food availability is the determining factor in the variation of regional differences in calf delivery. Prior to delivery, a cow elk leaves the herd and delivers her calf in seclusion. The cow maintains the secrecy of her vulnerable hidden calf by keeping the area around her calf clean and free of odorous material (placenta, feces) by eating it. So as not to attract predators with her own odor, she stays away from her calf, visiting it only to nurse until the calf has grown stronger. Despite the best efforts of their mothers, elk calves remain very vulnerable to predators including bears, wolves and coyotes.
I hope you enjoy these photos of elk. Among the photos of elk included here are: bull elk in velvet, bull elk in rut, bull elk sparring, bull elk with their harem of cows, cow elk, and elk calves.
Many of these photos were taken in Yellowstone National Park and many others were taken in the National Bison Range.
All photos in this gallery depict wild & free elk (or wapiti, if you prefer).
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