Caribou Vs Elk

Caribou Vs Elk: A Comparison

Caribou and elk are two types of ungulates that belong to the deer family. They are both popular game animals and are hunted for their meat, hides, and antlers. Despite their similarities, there are some key differences between the two species. In this article, we will compare caribou and elk in terms of their physical appearance, habitat, behavior, diet, and other features.

Physical Appearance

Caribou are known for their large, branching antlers that grow on both males and females. These antlers are shed and regrown every year. Their coats are usually grayish-brown with white necks and rump patches. Caribou are typically smaller and more slender than elk, with adults weighing between 150-700 pounds, depending on the subspecies.

Elk, on the other hand, have more massive, cylindrical antlers that are grown only by males. Their coats are usually brown or tan with dark brown manes and rumps, and their long legs give them a tall, slender appearance. Elk are larger and heavier than caribou, with an average weight of 500-900 pounds.


Caribou and elk both thrive in various habitats, including forests, tundra, and subalpine meadows. Caribou are found in the Arctic and subarctic regions of North America, Europe, and Asia. They are well-adapted to cold weather, and their hooves spread out to provide traction on snow and ice.

Elk are mainly found in North America, with the largest populations in the western states such as Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. They prefer open habitats such as meadows, prairies, and foothills. Elk are more tolerant of warmer climates than caribou.


Caribou are migratory animals that travel in large herds of hundreds or thousands of individuals. They follow traditional routes between their summer and winter ranges, covering long distances in search of food and shelter. Caribou are known for their nomadic lifestyle and their ability to survive in harsh environments.

Elk are also social animals that form herds during the winter months. They tend to be more stationary than caribou, with some populations remaining in their summer ranges year-round. Elk are generally more aggressive than caribou, especially during the mating season when males engage in a behavior called “bugling” to attract mates.


Caribou are primarily herbivorous, feeding on lichens, mosses, and other vegetation that grows in the tundra. During the winter months, they will dig through snow to reach lichens on the ground. Caribou have unique digestive systems that allow them to extract nutrients from tough, fibrous plant materials.

Elk are also herbivores, feeding on grasses, shrubs, and tree bark. They are able to digest cellulose, a component of plant cell walls that most other mammals cannot process. Elk are ruminants, which means they have a four-chambered stomach and regurgitate and rechew their food to aid in digestion.

Other Features

Caribou and elk have some other unique features that distinguish them from each other. Caribou have large, splayed hooves that act as snowshoes and help them navigate through deep snow. They also have a unique migration instinct that helps them cope with fluctuations in food and weather. Elks have a distinctive vocalization called a “bugle” that they use during the mating season to attract females and intimidate rivals. They also have a keen sense of hearing and smell that helps them detect predators and other threats.


Q: Are caribou and reindeer the same thing?

A: Yes, caribou and reindeer are the same species, Rangifer tarandus. Reindeer is the common name used for populations of this species found in Europe and Asia, while caribou refers to the North American populations.

Q: Are elk dangerous to humans?

A: Elk are generally not considered dangerous to humans, but they can become aggressive if they feel threatened or if a person gets too close to their calves. Bull elk can also be dangerous during the mating season when they are more territorial and prone to fighting.

Q: Why do caribou migrate?

A: Caribou migrate to follow the availability of food and to avoid harsh weather conditions. During the winter months, they will move farther south in search of areas where the snow is not as deep and food is more plentiful. In the summer, they will move north to the tundra where the vegetation is more abundant.

In conclusion, caribou and elk are fascinating animals that have adapted to survive in diverse environments. While they share some similarities in their physical appearance and behavior, they also have some distinct differences that make them unique. Whether you are a hunter, wildlife enthusiast, or simply curious about these amazing creatures, learning about caribou and elk is a rewarding experience.