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Elk Behavior

Updated: June 30th 2017 @ 8:52am

elk hunting

It's both thrilling and haunting. It'll raise the hair on the back of your neck the first time you hear it. The majestic elk is known for producing high-pitched, screeching calls that carry for miles, particularly during breeding season. 

David Reby1, of the University of Sussex, has studied the calls of animals and found that larger animals like the elk, or wapiti, should have calls that fall into deeper registers, simply because they have larger larynges that vibrate at lower frequencies. “Their pitch is totally unexpected,” Reby said. So he collaborated with several colleagues from diverse disciplines to investigate further. Their findings are published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

When they analyzed recordings of bellowing deer in New Zealand, Reby et al. found that the wapiti actually have two distinct frequencies in their calls: that blood-curdling Ringwraith scream, clocking in as high as 4000 Hz, and a much lower pitched sound of around 150 Hz. We tend to only hear the former, since those sounds travel greater distances.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, founded in 1984 by four hunters from Troy, Montana (Bob Munson, Bill Munson, Dan Bull, and Charlie Decker) offers this information about specific elk behavior.2

Elk Talk: Vocalizations

Elk are among the noisiest ungulates, communicating danger quickly and identifying each other by sound.

  • High-pitched squeal: Newborn to its mother, who recognizes her calf by its voice.
  • Bark: Warning of danger.
  • Chirps, mews and miscellaneous squeals: General conversation among the group.
  • Bugling (bellow escalating to squealing whistle ending with grunt): Bull advertising his fitness to cows, warning other bulls to stay away, or announcing his readiness to fight.
  • Elk also use body language. For example, an elk displays dominance by raising its head high.



Body Postures

  • When alarmed, elk raise their heads high, open their eyes wide, move stiffly and rotate their ears to listen
  • If a harem cow wanders, a bull stretches his neck out low, tips up his nose, tilts his antlers back and circles her
  • Elk threaten each other by curling back their upper lip, grinding their teeth and hissing softly
  • Agitated elk hold their heads high, lay their ears back and flare their nostrils, and sometimes even punch with their front hooves




  • Only male elk have antlers
  • Bulls shed and grow a new set of antlers every year
  • New antlers are covered in fuzzy skin called velvet
  • Antlers harden by late summer and the velvet peels away
  • By September, antlers are solid bone
  • A set of antlers on a mature bull can weigh up to 40 pounds



  • An elk's top two canine teeth are called ivories
  • Scientists believe ivories are remnants of saber-like tusks that ancestral species of elk used in combat



1Reby: "Why Elk Bugling Sounds Like Ringwraith Shrieks"

2Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation

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