What is the difference between an elk and an Elch? Sounds the same, but what Germans call an Elch is what we call a moose. And what about an elk – what is that in German? Well, it isn’t what you might think, it’s not a deer. A deer is what Germans call a Hirsch. Still confused? Well, a deer and an elk belong to the same family: Cervidae.
The Rocky Mountain Elk, the ones pictured above, are a subspecies of the North American Elk (Cervus elaphus). Now, the deer we see, often crossing our path on the way to school, are most likely Whitetail deer (Odocoileus virginianus), but you can see Mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) in our region too. Mule deer have large ears and a black-tipped tail. Whitetail deer have smaller ears and wide, flat, bushy tails.
Wikipedia explains the reason for the confusion as follows: ‘The British English word “elk” has cognates in other Indo-European languages, for example elg in Danish/Norwegian, älg in Swedish, Elch in German and łoś in Polish. Confusingly, the word elk is used in North America to refer to a different animal, the elk or less commonly wapiti (Cervus canadensis), which is similar though slightly smaller (the North American species is the second largest deer species) and behaviorally and genetically divergent from the smaller red deer of central and western Europe. Presumably early European explorers in North America called it elk because of its size and presumably because, as men coming from the British Isles they would have had no opportunity to see the difference between a member of the genus Cervus and an animal fitting the description of Alces at home, where the latter was nowhere present in the 17th and 18th century.
And what about the the North American moose (Alces alces)? The moose also belongs to the same family, and the Elch know in Europe is called Eurasian elk, but goes by the same binomial name.
Now for a treat, and one of the reasons we like to visit Rocky Mountain National Park in September, when the elk migrate to the lower regions for the breeding season, otherwise known as elk rut (rut is derived from the Latin rugire for ‘roar’) – ENJOY!