Signs of Spring 11: Bold and Shy Elk

Bull elk. Photo by Skeeze, Pixabay

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When Europeans began exploring North America in the Sixteenth Century they encountered great herds of large, reddish-brown deer. Because of this animal’s great size and because of the impressive, spreading antlers on the males, they called this deer an “elk.” Now “elk” was already the European name for another huge member of the deer family, the moose, and moose are found not only in North America but also all across northern Europe and Asia. I don’t know why the European name

“Moose.” Photo by P. Owen, NPS

for “moose” was appended to an obviously different animal, and I am not sure what these Europeans did when they subsequently encountered a real moose here in the New World. Maybe that’s when they invented the word “moose.” Anyway, today we have a very unfortunate point of name confusion in which both the large New World deer and the Eurasian “moose” are called “elk.” This is a wonderful example of common name confusion and a very strong argument for the use of scientific names if you are really trying to be specific in your communications!

American “elk,” by the way, are most precisely called Cervus canadensis, and “moose” in America, Europe and Asia are most precisely called Alces alces.

To add possibly a bit more confusion to this whole elk/moose naming run-about, some well-meaning, I am sure, large mammal folks also refer to the American elk by their Shawnee and Cree name, “wapiti,” and “wapiti” has, in particular, been specifically applied to Asian species of “elk” (like the Altai wapiti and the Manchurian wapiti, etc.) to avoid confusion with the historical name of the Eurasian moose.

Confused? Me, too.

Elk were found almost everywhere across North America prior to the arrival of Europeans, but their numbers declined and their ranges diminished drastically as Europeans spread across the continent. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the last wild eastern elk was shot in Pennsylvania on September 1, 1877, and the eastern elk subspecies was declared extinct three years later. Today, elk are primarily found in the northern and central Rocky Mountains and in the Pacific Northwest with small islands of isolated herds scattered across Canada and in the Southwest and southern Midwest of the United States.

Elk, though, have returned to Pennsylvania! Between 1913 and 1926 the Pennsylvania Game Commission imported and released 177  elk (50 of them from Yellowstone National Park!) into several counties in the north-central part of the state. Today a herd of around 800 elk roam across an 800 square mile Pennsylvanian range and form the foundation of an active, local tourist industry.

Elk at Mammoth Hot Springs, B. Inaglory, Wikimedia Commons

When we were out in Wyoming last summer we saw a lot of elk. In particular, driving through Yellowstone, herds of elk were a regular and very popular roadside attraction. One evening, as we drove through the town of Mammoth, a small (population 263) town with scattered buildings that house a visitor’s center, a chapel, the Yellowstone Park Headquarters, a ranger station and some barracks and houses, we were struck by the abundance of lounging elk on almost every street corner and on almost every lawn. I have been told that these “city elk” are a herd descended from an old bull elk who figured out that being in the proximity of Mammoth’s buildings offered significant protection from predators (and maybe even some extra food sources?).

This “city elk” phenomenon is not restricted to Mammoth, though.

Elk in Yellowstone,. Photo by D. Fulmer, Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Robert Found of the University of Alberta studies the elk of Western Canada. He has applied a system that characterizes individual elk in a herd as either “bold” or “shy.” This classification system was developed by a group of researchers from the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary and published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B (S. Ciuti et al., September 5, 2012).  Some characteristics of bold elk include short flight initiation distances (FID’s)(i.e. they allow people to approach them relatively closely), they also seem unconcerned about possible predators (and spend little time watching for potential dangers), they readily fight with other elk in the herd, they tend to remain on the periphery of the herd rather than in the safer areas of the herd’s center while grazing, and they willingly approach unfamiliar objects (like old tires or other human cast-off materials). Shy elk exhibit opposite characteristics (long FID’s, very high predator vigilance, avoidance of intra-herd fighting, central herd grazing positions, avoidance of unfamiliar objects).

Most interestingly, Dr. Found determined that the bold elk are more likely to move into human developed areas (towns and cities) especially in the winter. They avoid their historically long migrations down from their high altitude summer ranges into lower, more sheltered winter ranges by their selection of these urban sites. Shy elk, on the other hand, are more likely to carry out their traditional, seasonal migration. The possible energy savings by the non-migrating, increasingly human dependent, bold elk may have significant ecological and, possibly, evolutionary impacts! Dr. Found’s study is described in his 2016 paper in Animal Behavior.

There have been, though, other studies of behavioral and ecological differences between shy and bold elk. Bold elk, for example, are more likely to be taken by hunters and other predators because of the unidimensional nature of their response to danger (run away quickly). Shy elk, on the other hand, have more complex and more subtle strategies that act to avoid the development of potential hunter/predator confrontations, and they are, thus, much more likely to survive a hunting/predation interaction.

Photo by O. Daniels, Wikimedia Commons

Also, shy elk are more likely than bold elk to form symbiotic relationships with other species. A recently published study by Dr. Found (Biology Letters, November 29, 2017) looked at the interactions of elk and magpies. He noticed that some resting elk in a herd had magpies that landed on their backs (and heads!) and pecked away at insects and ticks that resided in the elk’s thick coat. Using the “bold/shy” elk profile, Dr. Found determined that the shy elk were much more likely to allow the magpies to land and feed on them!

This behavioral difference between bold and shy elk may have even more significance than their differences in winter migration. Ticks are becoming an increasingly serious problem especially in the warmer, shorter winters of our climate-altered world. In Maine for example, moose (our original “elk”) are dying in the winter because of massive tick infestations (see this AccuWeather article!). Pale colored “ghost moose” are the consequence of a tick riddled moose scratching its dark, insulating outer coat off in an attempt to rid itself of these maddeningly, itchy ectoparasites. These ghost moose are dying from loss of insulation and loss of blood. Some 70% of moose calves die each winter because of their huge loads of ticks.

It will be interesting to watch the relative proportions of shy and bold elk in the wild elk herds over the coming years. Will the segregation of the individuals into “city” and “rural” herds separate gene pools and possibly lead to speciation? Will the increasing presence of wolves in these regions select for more shy (i.e. predator vigilant) elk? Or will the increasing populations of ticks driven by global warming and climate change favor those elk who can open themselves up to the mutualistic symbiosis with magpies?

We’ll find out in a couple of centuries! Stay tuned!




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One Response to Signs of Spring 11: Bold and Shy Elk

  1. Paul Hess says:

    Great education! I had no idea about any of this.

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