Are Elk Color Blind? The Ultimate Truth!


Did you know that elk or Cervus canadensis populations outside of national parks are primarily managed by hunter harvest according to Brigham Young University?

Elk are interesting creatures but most of us know very little about these animals.

The scientifically minded might be minded to ask, “How could science possibly know whether elk can see in color or not?

After all, it’s not as if scientists could ask an elk,” which is a reasonable question.

The answer has to do with how eggheads figured out the various properties and functions of different types of tissue in eyes, from which they were able to draw pretty conclusive inferences, inferences science has been able to back up experimentally.

The next question follows naturally. Can elk see colors?

This is not necessarily a matter of idle curiosity.

Those who hunt elk for a living or “sport” can use the answer to this question to better understand their quarry and possibly enhance their hunting skills and improve their kill rate.

Are Elk Color Blind?

Elk are not color blind, as they are able to see white, black, grey, yellow, and blue. The only color they cannot see is the color red. However, elk blue vision is about 1,000 times better than humans’, enabling them to see ultraviolet light far more clearly than we can.

The Fields of View of Humans and Elk

One of the main differences between how ungulates (hoofed animals) like elk and humans see has to do with the location of each’s eyes.

Ungulate eyes are located on the sides of the head, giving them a wider field of vision (about 280 degrees).

On the other hand, human vision only goes 180 degrees, giving the elk a superior advantage out in the open.

Since an elk has 280 degrees vision, it needs only to move its head from side to side to see the full 360 degrees.

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Elks are ungulates, hence, they have 280 degrees vision and only side-to-side head movement to see 360 degrees
Elks are ungulates, hence, they have 280 degrees vision and only side-to-side head movement to see 360 degrees

Put another way, an elk can scan to see everything around it by moving its head a mere 40 degrees on either side, making it so dashed challenging to sneak up on it.

A rather handy trick for any creature that is not at the top of the food chain.

Human vs. Elk eyesight: How They Work

Human vision is sharper in the middle of the eye, which allows us to focus on specific details right to the front of our face. You know, like web articles.

Elk see differently.

With elk, the focus is on seeing the bigger picture. The blade of grass they are about to chomp down on is all very well in a culinary sense, but it is hardly life-threatening.

On the other hand, the pride of lions that has just hove into view on the horizon could be far more pertinent to the day’s proceedings.

Elk read the warnings in their surroundings, not the daily newspaper.

Elk Eyesight Revealed

Having a more extensive field of vision is, for ungulates, a big upside. The downside (because there’s always a tradeoff in these matters) is that elk are saddled with diminished visual perception.

That’s not to say that their vision sucks or that it is considerably less acute than the human eye. It isn’t.

Don’t read ungulates’ lower visual ability means their eyesight isn’t clear. Instead, understand that it just means they sample data with a lower density of photon detectors.

All this is similar to comparing the resolution of cameras.

In this metaphor, the resolution of a digital image in megapixels is like normal human eyesight. Deer eyesight is like a digital camera processing a larger visual area but with fewer pixels.

The Way Elk See Color

Another important difference between humans and elk that will help us understand how these ungulates see is to compare the color vision of both.

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Humans are trichromats. We can see black, white, and shades of grey, of course, but we can also see yellow, red, and blue.

Elk, it turns out, are dichromatic. Yes, they too see black, white, and shades of grey, but they only see blue and yellow.

Being unable to see red means that elk cannot see orange because orange is an admixture of red and yellow.

So elk can see the yellow pigment in orange, but their brains would have to shade the color to a type of grey because that is the only color range that would make sense.

Elk can see green since green is a yellow and blue admixture.

Elk can see green because green is a combination of yellow and blue, a product of them being dichromatic
Elk can see green because green is a combination of yellow and blue, a product of them being dichromatic

Seeing green probably helps elk identify suitable vegetation to eat, although smell and taste would undoubtedly play a part in helping in the identification process.

Elk Color Super-Vision

Since orange is not a color for elk, these animals will not get spooked by orange safety vests worn by hunters.

Since elk cannot see the color red in orange vests, they won
Since elk cannot see the color red in orange vests, they won’t be spooked when they see hunters wearing them

However, in a peculiar “gotcha,” it turns out that elk have an amazing ability to see the color blue.

The range of blue color that elk can see is about 1,000 times wider than ours, reaching smack into the ultraviolet radiation bandwidth.

In the previous paragraph, the “gotcha” I alluded to happens when unsuspecting hunters wash their camouflage apparel in soaps and powders containing ultraviolet brighteners.

To the human eye, there is nothing amiss. To an elk’s eye, such clothing is a full-blast, screaming visual alarm flare that is as lit as all get out.

If you’ve ever heard a savvy hunter discuss not washing camouflage in certain detergents so as not to scare away elk or deer, well, now you know why.

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Frequently Asked Questions about Elks Being Color Blind

Have elk sacrificed their color vision to help them see better at night?

Elk can see better at night than humans (and other primates) because they have a unique “mirror” in the back of their eyes that reflects light. The existence of this mirror has nothing to do with cones (color photoreceptors), so, elk have not sacrificed their color vision to see better at night.

Have elk sacrificed their color vision to help them see farther?

Elk have eyes that see movement more acutely than we do. The placement of an elk’s eyes on the sides of its head, plus the density of rods (which analyze more light) over cones (which interpret more color), means that the elk have sacrificed color to be able to see farther.

What colors should I wear to make my elk hunt more successful?

Your orange safety apparel is obviously mandated by law, so there’s not much you can do about that. Since elk are sensitive to movement rather than colors or details, it is probably best to wear a striated pattern that can match a dappled background and look like it’s part of the environment.

Afterword: Are Elk Color Blind?

In truly color-blind creatures, vision is restricted to black, white, and shades of grey. Any animal that can see one or more of the other primary colors cannot be said to be truly color blind.

Elk can see two of the three primary colors; the only one they can’t see is the color red.

However, despite not being able to see red, in a way, elk vision outperforms human color vision because elk can see blue wavelengths all the way into the ultraviolet part of the spectrum.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>