Reindeer Vs Caribou Vs Elk

When it comes to discussing the different types of deer that roam North America, three of the most commonly mentioned are the reindeer, caribou, and elk. While they may have some similarities, there are also many notable differences between these majestic creatures. In this article, we will explore the various characteristics and distinctions of reindeer vs caribou vs elk.

Physical Characteristics and Appearance:

Reindeer, also known as domesticated caribou or “Santa’s helpers”, are a species of deer native to northern Europe, Siberia, and North America. They are smaller than other members of the deer family and possess unique adaptations for life in the Arctic, such as fur coats that change color with the seasons and wide hooves that allow them to track through the snow.

In contrast, caribou is a larger and wilder version of reindeer, with a coat that is usually grayish-brown in color. One of their most characteristic features is their large, branching antlers (on males) that can grow up to 3.5 feet wide. Caribou are migratory animals that cover great distances in search of food and mating partners.

Meanwhile, elk, also known as wapiti, are the largest member of the deer family in North America. They have tan to reddish-brown fur with a distinctive white rump patch and massive antlers – up to 5 ft across – that they shed every year. Unlike reindeer and caribou, elk live in forested areas and do not migrate.


Reindeer and caribou are both found in the northernmost regions of Europe, Asia, and North America. Specifically, they can be found in tundras and taigas where they have adapted to life in cold temperatures and icy terrains. Reindeer are domesticated by indigenous people in some regions such as Lapland, where they are used for transportation, meat, and hides.

Elk, on the other hand, are found primarily in temperate and boreal forests. Historically, they ranged from coast to coast and border to border in North America, but human activities such as deforestation and hunting have restricted their ranges to the Rocky Mountains and a few other areas.


Reindeer and caribou are known for their synchronized movements, especially during migration when they travel in herds of thousands of individuals. They are social animals that form tight-knit groups and rely on each other for survival during the harsh winter months. During the mating season, males compete for females using loud vocalizations and violent fights.

Elk are also social animals that form herds of dozens to hundreds of individuals. However, they are not migratory animals and instead travel shorter distances to follow food sources throughout the year. During the mating season, male elk engage in an impressive display of antler wrestling to win the right to mate with females.


Reindeer eat a variety of vegetation, such as mosses, lichens, and leaves, scraping away the snow to reach the food underneath. They have a specialized digestive system that allows them to break down the tough cellulose in their food. Caribou also eat a variety of vegetation, but rely mainly on lichens in the winter, which they can sniff out under the snow.

Elk, on the other hand, are grazers that feed on grasses, forbs, and young shoots from trees and shrubs. During the winter, they may also eat the bark of trees or browse on woody plants.


In summary, while reindeer, caribou, and elk are all part of the same family, they are distinct species that differ in their physical characteristics, habitats, behaviors, and diets. Reindeer and caribou are found in the Arctic, have unique adaptations for life in cold temperatures and travel in herds, while Elk are found in temperate forests and have massive antlers and live in small herds. Understanding these differences can help you appreciate the unique characteristics of each of these majestic creatures.