With so many different types of deer on the planet, it’s hard to keep them all straight. Just one point of confusion is how to distinguish the Red Deer from the North American Elk (Wapiti). These animals can look very similar, but there are distinguishing features that can help you figure out which is which. Keep reading to find our comprehensive red deer vs elk comparison.
Let’s discuss the features of red deer and elk so you can see the ways these species differ. You’ll learn a lot of useful information about each of these majestic cervids.
Are Red Deer and Elk the Same?
No, red deer and elk are not the same species. Despite the past belief that the North American elk (or Wapiti) was a subspecies of the red deer, recent genetic tests have proven that elk are a distinct species.
Of course, both red deer and elk are members of the taxonomic family known as cervidae, which is more commonly referred to as the deer family. The deer family is divided into two subfamilies, cervinae, or Old World deer, and capreolinae, New World deer.
However, the names Old and New World are very confusing since both types of deer can be found around the world today. The difference between the two subfamilies is technical and refers to a difference in the joint structure.
Both Red Deer and Elk belong to the Old World cervinae subfamily, which means they are very closely related.
They are also both among some of the largest species of deer. Neither, however, is as large as the North American moose, the largest deer species on the planet.
The word “elk” can also be extremely confusing because British and American English use different words when referring to particular species.
In American English, elk and moose are regarded as two distinct species, whereas in British English, the word Elk can be used to refer both to moose and elk, though the name wapiti will also be used in Europe to refer to North American elk.
In this article, elk has a separate meaning from moose.
What is a Red Deer?
To make things even more complicated, there are more than one species of red deer, and this goes beyond just American and European red deer.
Within Europe, there are multiple subspecies of Red Deer including the
- Scottish Red Deer,
- Norwegian Red Deer, and the
- Caspian Red Deer, among others.
In addition, red deer have been introduced to areas outside of their natural habitat and can be found in South America and New Zealand, leading to new subspecies that can endanger the population of native deer.
Are Elk Bigger than Red Deer?
Generally speaking, yes. Elk tend to be significantly taller and heavier than Red Deer.
However, the largest recorded Red Deer have been the size of a small Elk. Therefore, there may be some Red Deer roaming around that are comparable in size to many Elk.
Elk vs Red Deer Size Comparison
Let’s take a look at our chart comparing elk and red deer average sizes, lifespan, and habitat.
The statistics on height and deer weight refer to male specimens.
|4 feet at shoulder||5 feet at shoulder|
|350 to 530 pounds||705 to 1100 pounds|
|16-18 year lifespan||14 year lifespan|
|Ranges include Europe, central Asia, western Asia, North Africa, Iran||Ranges include North America, Central Asia, and Siberia|
Males vs Females
As is the case with most deer, both Red Deer and Elk exhibit dramatic sexual dysmorphism, which means male and female individuals are very easy to tell apart.
The most obvious difference is that male Red Deer and Elk have antlers, whereas females do not.
One distinguishing feature of both species is neck manes that grow in the fall. However, while both male and female Elk will grow a neck mane, only male Red Deer will develop a neck mane.
Male Red Deer are referred to as stags, and most frequently they will simply be called Red Stags. Sometimes, the male deer will also be referred to as a hart or red hart. A female Red Deer is called a hind.
Unlike Red Deer, a male Elk is referred to as a bull, and a female Elk is called a cow.
You can learn more about the common names of male deer and names of female deer elsewhere on this site.
What Is the Difference Between a Red Stag and a Bull Elk?
If you’re at a distance (which you probably will be), it’s quite tricky to tell the difference between a Red Deer stag and a bull Elk.
Even experienced hunters have been known to mix up the two on occasion, so don’t feel bad about not being able to spot the differences.
The main difference between a bull elk and a red stag is their size. Bull elk are significantly heavier and are often between 705 and 1100 pounds. Some red stags have been known to reach 600 pounds, but most will be between 350-500 pounds.
Other differences include the color of the coats and the antlers.
- Bull elk have a lighter color around most of their body, but around the neck and head the coat tends to be darker.
- Red stags have, unsurprisingly, a reddish-brown coat that is fairly consistent all over the body.
- Bull elk antlers differ in form from red stags in that the antlers of red stags tend to form a symmetrical crown shape, whereas bull elk antlers will grow to the back or the side.
Is a Red Deer-Elk Hybrid Possible?
In captivity, yes. For a long time, breeders didn’t recognize the difference between captive Red Deer and Elk, so they cross-bred them, resulting in what is referred to as a Red Deer-Elk hybrid.
These hybrids are useful because they increase the amount of meat that a farm can produce, but they’re a potential problem for the surrounding natural environment. They can escape captivity quite easily and if they do, they’re unable to defend themselves.
This kind of hybrid would never occur naturally in the wild. Elk and Red Deer live in different regions and habitats.
Do Red Deer and Elk Live in the Same Areas?
No, as we just mentioned, Red Deer and Elk do not live in the same habitat.
Elk are found in North America and in central Asia and Siberia. Elk have been introduced to other areas, but their natural habitat is different from that of the red deer.
Red Deer live in Europe, western Asia, and northern Africa. They have been introduced to areas in the Southern hemisphere such as Australia and New Zealand, where they were brought for big game hunting.
However, this is not the natural habitat of red deer. Their presence makes them an invasive species and may cause problems with the ecosystem.
Behavioral Differences: Red Deer vs Elk
Elk are known for living in large herds or groups. During the summer, they can gather into enormous groups.
Both Elk and Red Deer divide into male and female groups throughout most of the year. During the rutting period, males will compete and follow a herd with about 20 females that they will protect against other bulls or stags.
Bull Elk are known for their loud bugling sound, which reaches an extremely high frequency for an animal of its size.
As we saw in our chart earlier, red deer tend to have a longer lifespan in the wild. Red Deer may live between 16 and 18 years, while the elk lifespan tends to be 14 years.
Final Observations: Red Deer vs Elk Comparison
From a distance, you still might not be able to spot the differences between the Elk and the Red Deer. That said, understanding the difference between Elk and Red Deer is still useful and interesting, especially if you want to throw out some trivia next time you’re at the hunting lodge.