Caribou Vs Elk Vs Reindeer

Caribou Vs Elk Vs Reindeer: Understanding the Differences and Similarities

When it comes to large mammals in the deer family, it’s easy to get confused with the similar-looking species: caribou, elk, and reindeer. Although they share some similarities, they also have distinctive features and differences that set them apart. In this article, we’ll delve into the various characteristics of caribou, elk, and reindeer, and explore how they differ from one another.

Caribou, also known as the North American reindeer, are found in the Arctic tundra and in boreal forests in North America. They are the only deer species in which both males and females grow antlers, which they use for protection during mating season and in combat with rivals. Caribou are uniquely adapted to cold weather, with wide, concave hooves to help them walk on snow and thick fur that helps insulate them from the cold.

Elk, on the other hand, are found in a wide range of habitats from boreal forests to dry deserts in North America, Eastern Asia, and Europe. They have large antlers that only males grow, which they use to attract mates and intimidate rivals during the mating season. Elk are also well adapted to cold conditions and have a thick, warm coat during winter, which they shed in the summertime.

Reindeer, also known as caribou in North America, are found in the tundras and forests of Europe, Asia, and North America. Reindeer males and females both grow antlers; however, only a few males in the species grow them to an impressive size. Reindeer are around the same size as Caribou, with males standing up to five feet tall at their shoulders, and females being slightly smaller. Reindeer are also adapted to cold weather, with thick fur that helps insulate them from the cold.

Here are some key differences between these magnificent animals:

Physical Differences

Despite their similarities in appearance, caribou, elk, and reindeer have physical differences that distinguish them. Caribou have a shorter and stockier build, with a hump on their shoulders, while Elk are taller and more slender with narrower necks. Both caribou and elk have a shaggy mane around their necks. While on the other hand, Reindeers have shorter and rounder bodies, with a domed head and shorter legs.


Caribou have unique antlers that are wider and flatter than any other species of deer. Both males and females grow antlers, and the size and shape of the antlers vary from one individual to another depending on their age, sex, and season. Male caribou shed their antlers by November or December, while the females conserve their antlers throughout winter.

Elk, on the other hand, have impressive antlers that are more elongated and symmetrical than caribou ones. Only males grow antlers, and they shed them in the late winter or early spring.

Similarly, Reindeer males and females grow antlers that are generally smaller in size than caribou and elk ones, and only few males grow to an impressive size.


The habitat for these species is a significant differentiating factor. Caribou are largely found and thrive in colder regions such as the Arctic tundra, northern forests, and taiga. The habitat is mainly characterized by snow, ice, and freezing winds.

Elk are adaptable and can survive in a wide range of forests such as deciduous, coniferous, and mixed forests. They are more at home in the western US and Canada, although some populations still thrive in Asia and Europe.

Reindeer inhabit the arctic tundra and subarctic forests of Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Russia. They have adapted to the harsh and extreme weather conditions with thick white fur to protect them from the cold and offer camouflage from predators.


Since these species have adapted to live in different habitats, it’s no surprise that their diets also vary.

Caribou eat primarily lichen-stricken shrubs and small trees in the colder regions of North America, while elk feed on grass, shrubs, and trees. Reindeers have a unique diet that includes lichen, moss, and other arctic plants, making them sustainable in their habitat.

Relationship to Humans

Lastly, the relationship between humans and these animals differs.

Caribou, elk, and reindeer have all been hunted by humans throughout history for meat and hides. In some areas, caribou is hunted for subsistence, while elk is primarily hunted for sport. Reindeer has a significant cultural and spiritual value, and they are known to have domesticated through history to provide meat, hides, milk, and transportation.


Although they are in the same family, Caribou, elk, and reindeer are unique species that have plenty of differences. Understanding these differences can help you make informed choices about conservation, hunting, or tourism. It’s a tragedy that numerous populations throughout history and still today still face the risk of becoming extinct. Measures to protect these animals must be put in place since they play significant ecological, cultural, and spiritual roles.