Differences Between Elk, Reindeer, Moose and Caribou

The deer family contains about 43 species of similar ruminants with antlers. Most people get them confused, especially, the bigger members of that species.

So, what are the differences between elk, reindeer, moose, and caribou? 

Even though these deer types share the same general appearance, there are basic differences in their habitats, behaviors, anatomical features, and sizes.

  • Elk are massive herd animals with long sharp antlers and mostly live in the mountain forests of North America.
  • Moose, are the largest, with flat wide antlers, and they lead solitary lives in Canada and Alaska.
  • Caribou and Reindeer refer to the same animal, but they get the former name in Canada and America, and the latter in Europe and Asia. They have tall curved antlers and live in herds. 

There are more distinctive features exclusive to each one of these animals, in addition to absolutely amazing behaviors, and surprising lifestyles! Read on to know all about it. 

Elk vs. Reindeer vs. Moose 

Elk, Reindeer, Moose, and Caribou, along with 40 other deer species are all members of the same dear family; the Cervidae

If you trace this line higher, you’ll find many similarities with antelopes, goats, giraffes, and cattle. That’s because they all belong to the mammalian order artiodactyl.

Some people refer to all of these ruminant animals as ‘reindeer’. That’s because this type of deer approximates the basic features of elk, moose, caribou, and reindeer. Additionally, it’s the one that’s highly popularized by pop culture and associated with Christmas. 

There are some basic differences that would make identifying each one of them a breeze. Here’s a brief summary of these characteristics. 

AnimalHabitatKey FeaturesSize
ElkMountains, Rocky Plateaus, and Forests in East Asia and AmericaTall sharp antlers rising up to 4 feet above the head. Also, dark hairy mane.  Medium-sized to large animals. Weight ranges from 500-1000 lbs and height from 4-5 ft.  
Reindeer/CaribouGreenland, parts of Europe, North America, and Asia. Shaggy visibly hairy necks, and often pale rumps. Males and females have long curved antlers. Medium-sized deer weighing around 275-660 lbs, with an average height of 4 ft. 
MooseAlaska and CanadaMassive size, bulky head, and large broad antlers. Large animals weighing up to 1800 lbs, and exceeding 6.5 ft in height. 

Are Reindeer and Caribou the Same?

Reindeer and Caribou are often referred to in scientific texts as one and the same type of deer; the Rangifer tarandus. Reindeer and caribou aren’t perfectly identical though.  

Caribou are wild deer commonly found in North America. Reindeer is a general term given to their often domesticated counterparts living in Asia and the Northern part of Europe. There are also some reindeer in Alaska that came with the trade from Siberia around the 19th century.  

Some Scandinavian and Arctic communities raise reindeer for their meat. This practice developed reindeer breeds that are significantly larger than the wild-roaming caribou. 

What Is a Female Reindeer Called?

In the world of deer, a female is often cute, demure, and has no antlers. The female reindeer is quite different, as it’s large, muscular, and often has antlers. Female reindeer are called ‘cows’. 

What Is a Male Reindeer Called?

In a similar fashion, the male reindeer is called a bull, whereas a male deer is known as a stag. 

Elk

Large Bull Elk Calling in Alaska

The elk, which is also known in some places as a wapiti, has the scientific name Cervus canadensis. It’s believed to be a descendent of the Red deer, based on recent genetic studies. It’s commonly found in the mountainous areas of North America and Central Asia.  

Habitat

Elk is an ancient animal that lived in Siberia and managed to flee the frost just before the ice age. From there, they moved to the forested mountainous parts of Alaska, North America, and Asia.  

The elk are rather flexible, and they can be spotted throughout the rocky parts and valleys of America all the way to the south. They can’t tolerate the desert and generally don’t favor the tundra, or boreal forests.  

General Appearance

Elks are usually large, averaging more than 500 lbs, with the bulls (male elk) easily exceeding 1100 lbs. These animals easily tower above a tall human, with their 5-6 ft of height, not including the antlers. 

They have light-colored skins, often grey or beige, with the adult elk sporting a dark mane around their necks. . 

Antlers

The elk’s antlers are symmetric, branchlike, and pretty tall. They seem to grow several protrusions from the same main rod, which gives the antlers extra strength. 

An elk’s antlers are characterized by having a range of colors from a reddish-brown at the roots to a clean ivory tone closer to the tips.    

Sounds

The elk sound is a compound heavy roar coupled with a high-pitched long call. This ‘bugle’ seems to be a gather-around call for the rest of the bull elks, or, an announcement of authority over a certain spot. 

Moose

Moose with Fall Colors

The moose, or Alces alces, is the largest deer in the wild. It’s characterized by a massive trunk, slightly misshapen features, a large head, and textured antlers spanning six feet across.  

The strangeness of the moose’s features comes mainly from the way its muzzle extends all the way to its chin, and even spills over it a little. 

Additionally, due to the size of their heads, they find it difficult to graze on low grass. Instead, they go to shrubs, lichens, or mosses. 

Habitat

The moose is abundant in North America, especially in Canada, Alaska, and the Rocky Mountains. There are several subspecies of the moose in each of these areas, but the differences between them aren’t major. 

There are also some moose herds in Eurasia, from Siberia to Europe. However, the geographic location of these subspecies seems to cause more pronounced differences. Mainly, in their appearance, size, and antler shape. 

General Appearance

The moose is a massive animal with an intimidating presence. It typically weighs more than 1800 lbs, and stands above 6.5 ft tall. This beast isn’t too dangerous though. It becomes aggressive when taunted, and rather testy when it gets hungry.  

It has a large head with strange features and an exaggerated set of antlers. Typically, they have dark bellies, marron backs, and light beige legs. 

Antlers

The moose’s antlers are big and broad. The base looks a bit like a shovel, while the ends are clearly pointed and ready for combat. This kind of antler is also known as a ‘palmate’ as it’s shaped like two palms with spread-out fingers.   

Sounds

The moose sound is admittedly terrifying! They often give out a bellow or a roar, that can be heard about six miles away.

As for the cow, it only has a wail, which she often makes during the mating season.

Reindeer/Caribou

Caribou Grazing in Tall Grass

Reinder and caribou are both categorized as Rangifer tarandus. They’re medium-sized deer ranging in weight from 275-660 lbs, with an average height hovering around 4 ft. 

They live in the coldest parts of North America, Europe, and Asia. However, during the winter, some of these herds travel down north to warmer climates where they can raise their yearlings in more forgiving climates. 

Habitat

Reindeer are often found in the colder parts of Northern Europe, Scandinavia, Greenland, the Russian part of the Arctic, and Asia. 

There are also some reindeer in Alaska, but they weren’t always native to these lands. They were imported from Siberia due to their usefulness and docile temperaments. Reindeer are often domesticated or raised for their meat. 

Caribou are the wild counterpart of reindeer and can be seen in various places in North America and Canada. 

General Appearance

Reindeers and caribous are both massive deer with tall pointed antlers that curve slightly as they grow bigger. Usually, there’s a pale beige coat around their necks. 

The reindeer are often stocky and short compared to a slightly lankier caribou. The reason for that is attributed to the domestication of reindeer and the free-ranging of the caribou. 

Antlers

Both the male and female reindeer have antlers, which is an interesting feature exclusive to this type of deer. Generally, only the male deer have antlers of varying shapes. 

Their sizes vary though, as the male’s antlers could grow up to 50 inches high, while the female’s antlers rarely grow beyond 20 inches. These antlers are often covered in velvet due to seasonal changes. 

The reindeer and caribou have tall branching pointy antlers, that curve a little as they grow bigger. It’s worth mentioning that they do grow into majestic thorny crowns. Far bigger than the antlers of any other deer. 

Sounds

Reindeer and caribou aren’t too loud. They usually make muted grunting sounds while breeding. Occasionally, these quiet sounds could turn into a croak or a bark, but that’s not too frequent. There’s another that reindeer make with their legs, which is clicking. 

Related Questions: 

Can Elk and Caribou Breed?

Until recently, there was a consensus among biologists that the elk and caribou can’t cross-breed. This is because of the clear differences in their size and temperament, in addition to other genetic discrepancies. 

However, new observations claim that the crossing of these species can actually produce viable offspring. 

Are Elk Aggressive?

Elk are known to attack, without warning, in two cases: when they’re swimming in the pheromones of the mating season, and once they have little fawns and become defensive. 

Conclusion 

The deer, or the Cervidae family, contains tens of interesting species. The most prominent among them are the elk, reindeer, caribou, and moose. 

They all share the same massive bulk, affinity to cold locations, and prominent antlers. However, there are distinctive characteristics that set them apart. 

Most of these species aren’t domesticated, except for the reindeer, which is widely used in  Europe and some parts of North America.

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