Reindeer Vs Elk Vs Caribou

Reindeer, elk, and caribou are three closely related species of deer that belong to the Cervidae family. They have many similarities but also some distinct differences that set them apart. They are fascinating animals that have played important roles in the cultures, traditions, and ecosystems of different parts of the world. In this article, we will explore the differences and similarities between reindeer, elk, and caribou, their habitats, diets, behavior, and more. We will also discuss some interesting facts and myths about these magnificent animals.

Reindeer Vs Elk Vs Caribou: What’s the Difference?

Reindeer, elk, and caribou are all members of the deer family, but they belong to different species and subspecies. Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) are also known as caribou in North America, while elk (Cervus canadensis) are known as wapiti in North America. Caribou and reindeer have several subspecies that vary in their physical appearance and range. Elk, on the other hand, have six subspecies that differ in size, color, and antler morphology. Below, we will describe some of the main differences between these animals:

Body size and weight: Elk are the largest of the three and can weigh up to 1100 pounds (500 kg) and stand up to 5 feet (1.5 m) tall at the shoulder. Caribou are smaller than elk, with males weighing up to 600 pounds (270 kg) and females weighing up to 400 pounds (180 kg). Reindeer are the smallest of the three and males can weigh up to 400 pounds (180 kg) and females up to 260 pounds (120 kg).

Antlers: All three species have antlers that they shed and regrow annually. Elk have the largest and most elaborate antlers, with a typical size of 3-4 feet (1 m) in length and 40-50 pounds (18-23 kg) in weight. Caribou have more slender and spread-out antlers than elk, with a total span of up to 4 feet (1.2 m) and a weight of 10-20 pounds (4.5-9 kg). Reindeer have the smallest and simplest antlers of the three, with a typical size of 3 feet (1 m) and a weight of 5-15 pounds (2-7 kg).

Color and pattern: Elk have a dark brown coat with a light-colored rump patch and a mane on their necks. Caribou and reindeer have a lighter coat that turns grayish-brown in winter, with a white neck, mane, and underbelly. In some subspecies of caribou, the coat has a mottled or patchy pattern.

Habitat and range: Elk are most commonly found in North America, from Alaska to Mexico, and prefer open forests, meadows, and grasslands. Caribou and reindeer have a circumpolar distribution and inhabit northern regions of Europe, Asia, and North America. They are adapted to cold, arctic environments and migrate long distances in search of food and breeding grounds.

Diet: All three species are herbivores and eat a variety of plants, such as grasses, sedges, shrubs, and lichens. Elk are known to eat tree bark and leaves as well. In summer, caribou and reindeer graze on tundra plants and in winter, they scrape away snow to expose lichens and mosses. Elk prefer open grasslands and consume more grasses and forbs.

Behavior and social structure: Elk are mostly solitary or live in small groups of cows and calves. Bulls form larger groups during the mating season (rut) and compete for females. Caribou and reindeer are more social and form large herds of hundreds or thousands of individuals that migrate together. They also mate in large groups during the rut and have a polygynous mating system, with dominant males competing for harems of females.

Myths and legends: Reindeer, caribou, and elk have been featured in many myths, legends, and folklore around the world. In North America, caribou were revered by the indigenous people for their adaptability, strength, and spiritual significance. According to Norse mythology, reindeer pulled the chariot of the god Thor. In Finnish and Sami legends, reindeer were associated with the sun, the moon, and the Northern Lights. In Native American folklore, elk were seen as symbols of endurance, courage, and power.

Why Are Reindeer Important?

Reindeer, or caribou, are an important part of the traditional cultures, livelihoods, and ecosystems of the Arctic regions of Asia, Europe, and North America. They have been domesticated for thousands of years by indigenous peoples such as the Sami and the Nenets, who rely on them for transportation, food, clothing, and shelter. Reindeer herders have deep knowledge of the ecology, behavior, and genetics of the animals and practice sustainable management techniques that balance conservation and use.

Reindeer are also ecologically important as grazers and browsers that influence the vegetation, soil, and carbon cycle of the tundra biome. They maintain open areas on the landscape that provide habitat and food for other wildlife such as wolves, foxes, birds, and insects. They also contribute to the global carbon budget by reducing the accumulation of peat and increasing soil nitrogen and phosphorus availability through their droppings.


Reindeer, elk, and caribou are fascinating animals that embody the beauty, resilience, and complexity of the natural world. They have evolved distinctive adaptations and behaviors that enable them to survive in different environments and face different challenges. They have also been a source of inspiration, wonder, and mythology for humans for centuries. Whether you encounter them in the wild, in a zoo, or in a winter storybook, these creatures will always capture our imagination and remind us of the magic of life.