Elk vs. Caribou

Elk and Caribou both are ruminant mammals that belong to the same family Cervidae. Besides elk and caribou, the family Cervidae also consists of deer and moose species. One interesting fact about the species of this class is, they all look quite similar, but in reality, they are entirely different species.

The main difference between Elk and Caribou is the species and size. Elk belongs to the species Cervus Canadensis and is one of the largest species in the Cervidae family while Caribou belongs to the specie Rangifer Tarandus and is smaller than elk.

Besides the main difference, there are many other several differences between them mentioned below.

Comparison Chart

Elk Caribou
Introduction Elk is known to be the largest living mammal on Earth that belongs to the family Cervidae Caribou is a mammal that also belongs to the family Cervidae but is smaller in size than elk
Found In Elks are primarily found in North America and Eastern Asia, but these days elk can also be seen in other countries like Australia, Argentina, and New Zealand Caribou is mainly found across the Arctic tundra and boreal forest of North America, Asia, Europe, and Greenland
Height Height at shoulders is 56 – 68 inches tall Caribous have average height in between 33 – 60 inches at the shoulder
Weight Elks have average weight in between 650 – 850lbs Caribous have average weight in between 350 – 400lbs
Antlers Only the elk males have antlers that are smaller than caribous Caribous males and females have antlers, and they are much larger than elks
Fur Elks have a reddish hue to their hair coloring along with it, and there are large buff-colored rump patches and smaller tails The color of the fur in caribous varies considerably and depends on seasons and subspecies. Caribous that are found in Northern areas are smaller and have white fur while Caribous found in Southern areas are relatively larger and darker in color
Hooves Elks possess an even number and same type of toes on each foot that is similar to camels, cattle, and goats The hooves of Caribous change according to the climate. For example, during summer, when the tundra is soft and wet, it’s foot become spongy to provide extra protection. But during winter, the foot-pads get a shrink, exposes the rim of the hoof which enables them to cut the ice and prevent it from slipping
Diet Elks are herbivorous that usually eat grasses, plants, leaves, and barks Caribou are also herbivorous who loves to eat lichens in the winter. However, they also eat willow leaves, birches, sledges, and grasses
Migration Elks are migrators that travel extensively from low valley meadows to high mountain grazing grounds Caribous are known to be one of the world’s great large-animal migrators who can move up to 5,000 km a year and can run at speeds of 60 – 80 km/hr.
Group Elks are very social animals who live in large groups called gangs A group of Caribou is termed as Herd
Average Life Span Elks can live up to 8 to 12 years in the wild but 20 years or more in the captivity Caribous can live up to 15 years in the wild

What is Elk?

The Elk is also called “wapiti”, a Native American word that means “white rump”. Elk varies in color from light tan in the summer to dark brown in the winter.

The elk is among the largest deer species weighing between 325 – 1100 pounds.  Elks were once found and lived across the mountainous forests in North America and East Asia only.  But later on, they had been introduced into new habitats such as Argentina, Australia, and New Zealand.

Elks mainly prefer to stay in both low land forest and forest-mountain habitats, but they can also be seen near lakes, bush lands, and marshes. Male elks are known as bulls have antlers and weigh up to two times or more than females which are also known as cows.

Elks are very social animals that live in groups of up to 400 individuals, called gangs. For elks, the mating season starts in September when mature bulls compete for the attentions of cows by making high pitched sounds known as bugles. The cows are attracted to those bulls that bugle the most frequent and have the loudest pitch.  The gestation period of cows is 240 to 262 days after which they give birth to one or two calves weigh between 33 – 35 lb.

The antlers of the elk are one of the fastest-growing bone that grows as per as 1 inch per day during the summer. Male elks shed their set of antlers every March and grow a new set in every May weighing up to 40 pounds. The new antlers are fully covered with velvet which keeps them insulated during the cold and snowy season.

Like other members of the Cervidae family, elks are also herbivorous, and their diet mainly includes grasses, shrubs, leaves, and trees. Elks are usually held in captivity for hunting and velvet collection. Velvet that is shed from male elk antlers is collected and used in medicines. Elk hides have been used for hundreds of years for the making of warm clothes and footwear. These days, antlers are also used as decorative pieces, but elk skin shoes, gloves, belts are more commonly used.

What is Caribou?

The Caribou is also known as “Reindeer” when domesticated. They are mainly found across the Arctic tundra and boreal forests regions of North America, Northern Europe, Alaska, Greenland, and Asia. Caribous vary considerably in size and color and weigh about 355 to 400lb.  Unlike Elks, both males and females of Caribous have antlers that are much larger than elk’s antlers. In the Scandinavian populations, old male’s Caribous fall off in December, young male’s fall off in the early Spring, and female’s fall off in the summer.

The nose of the caribou is entirely covered with short hair that ultimately increases the surface area within the nostrils and helps in keeping the incoming cold air warmed.  They are seasonal breeders who usually do mating in early September. Male caribous battle with each other for access to females. Two male will lock each other’s antlers and with all their strength, tries to push each other away. The most powerful male wins and can collect as many as 15-20 females for mating.

Caribous primarily love to eat lichens and mosses and occasionally eat grasses and shrubs. Some caribous are dark grey and some are dark brown with white patches underneath the tail, on neck, forehead, abdomen, and edges around the feet. The whole body is covered with a coat that has two layers of fur. One is a dense woolly undercoat while other is a long-haired overcoat consisting of hollow air-filled hairs enabling them to survive in harsh winter climates.

Like Elks, Caribous are also social animals that travel in a group of hundreds called as a herd. Few of the commercial uses of caribous are meat, hides, antlers, milk, and transportation by several Arctic citizens.

Key Differences between Elk and Caribou

  1. Both elk and caribou belong to the same family Cervidae but elk belongs to the species Cervus Canadensis while caribou belongs to the species Rangifer Tarandus.
  2. Elks mainly belong to North America and East Asia while Caribou is native to the Arctic, and boreal regions of Siberia, North America, Europe, Asia, and Greenland.
  3. Only males from the elk family possess antlers while both males and females in the Caribous family possess antlers.
  4. An adult elk is 56 – 58 inches in height at wither and may weigh up to 650 – 830lbs while an adult caribou is smaller and only 34 – 62 inches tall at withers and may weigh about 355 – 400lbs.
  5. Elk makes extensive migrations while caribous do not migrate vast distances.
  6. Elk has naked hair on its nose while caribou’s nose is entirely covered with short hair.
  7. The color of the neck is dark brown in elk while the color of the neck is white in caribou.

Comparison Video


Both elk and caribou belong to the Deer family and hence are quite similar to each other, but there are numerous visible differences between them. They belong to different species; have different body color, size, and shape. Moreover, they both are found in different countries.

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