Mule Deer vs. Elk: 8 Key Differences

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In the article “Mule Deer vs. Elk: 8 Key Differences” by Wildlife Informer, readers are introduced to the distinct characteristics that set these two large deer species apart. Although mule deer and elk share some similarities, such as shedding their antlers annually and being popular for sport hunting, there are several key differences to note. The article touches on various aspects including size, color, naming conventions, diet, antlers, herding behavior, sounds and calls, and habitat preferences. Whether you’re an avid wildlife enthusiast or simply curious about these majestic creatures, this article offers an insightful comparison to help differentiate between mule deer and elk.

Mule Deer vs. Elk: 8 Key Differences

Elk size and weight

Elk are some of the largest deer in North America, second only to moose. Adult bull elk stand around 5 feet tall at the shoulders and can weigh 700 to over 1,000 pounds. Female elk, called cows, weigh anywhere from 500 to 600 pounds and are over 4 feet tall at the shoulders. In comparison, mule deer stand about 3.5 feet at the shoulders, with bucks weighing over 300 pounds and does typically weighing up to 200 pounds. Mule deer are significantly smaller and lighter than elk.

Mule deer size and weight

Adult bull elk stand around 5 feet tall at the shoulders and can weigh 700 to over 1,000 pounds. Female elk, called cows, weigh anywhere from 500 to 600 pounds and are over 4 feet tall at the shoulders. In comparison, mule deer stand about 3.5 feet at the shoulders, with bucks weighing over 300 pounds and does typically weighing up to 200 pounds. Mule deer are significantly smaller and lighter than elk.

Overall appearance differences

The overall appearance of an elk differs greatly from that of a mule deer. Mule deer look like other typical deer species found in North America, such as the whitetail deer. They have a thinner physique compared to elk and smaller bone structures and stances. In comparison, elk look more like big reindeer or caribou. They have a broader body, wider stance, and bigger features all over, such as a larger nose and hooves.

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Mule deer colors

Mule deer typically have a reddish brown or dark grayish brown coat in the summer, which fades to a gray color in the winter. They exhibit a mottled appearance with lighter patches throughout their fur. Mule deer also have a white patch on their backside and underbelly.

Mule Deer vs. Elk: 8 Key Differences

Elk colors

Elk have a different coloration compared to mule deer. In the summer, they have a darker reddish brown coat, which then turns lighter tan in the winter. Elk have more red in their coloration compared to mule deer. They also lack the white patch on their backside and underbelly that is characteristic of mule deer. Additionally, elk have darker brown coloring on their neck and face, almost appearing to have a mane, with darker brown coloring on their belly and legs.

Male and female mule deer

In the case of mule deer, the males are called bucks, while the females are called does. This nomenclature is typical for most deer species.

Mule Deer vs. Elk: 8 Key Differences

Male and female elk

Elk, on the other hand, have different names for their males and females. The males are called bulls, and the females are called cows. This naming convention comes from the etymology or origins of the names of the animals. Bucks in deer comes from a relation to male goats and the bleating sound made, while bull in elk comes from their bugling sound that is similar to a bovine.

Mule deer feeding habits

Mule deer are primarily browsers and foragers. They pick and eat plants and vegetation as they move. Their diet varies depending on their habitat, but they mainly feed on shrubs, grasses, and weeds that grow in desert areas and higher elevations.

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Mule Deer vs. Elk: 8 Key Differences

Elk feeding habits

Elk are primarily grazers but also forage occasionally. They primarily feed on grasses and will sometimes eat bark or other low-hanging vegetation from trees. Elk prefer grasslands that produce lots of native grasses for their grazing. Many elk migrate to the same areas to feed during different times of the year.

Differences in elk antlers

Both elk and mule deer only have males that grow antlers, which they shed every year. Elk antlers are tall and dark-colored. The tines grow from one large main beam that is much wider at the base compared to mule deer. A single adult elk antler can weigh over 10 pounds and measure over 4 feet tall.

Mule Deer vs. Elk: 8 Key Differences

Differences in mule deer antlers

Mule deer antlers are not as elongated as elk antlers and are much shorter in comparison. They also spread out more, with more tines forking off of one another, resulting in more points. Mule deer antlers are lighter gray in color compared to the dark-colored elk antlers.

Elk herding behavior

Elk are known for their herding behavior and often form large herds of up to 100 animals. Some elk herds have even reached upwards of 500 members. Interestingly, elk separate by gender in their herds, with males in one area and females in another while grazing together.

Mule deer group dynamics

Mule deer tend to be more solitary creatures. While they are social animals, they rarely remain in large herds year-round. They usually only travel in small groups of 4 to 7 animals. Mule deer may gather in group feeding areas during certain times of the year and during mating season, but they move in and out of larger family groups. Young bucks leave the group once they reach sexual maturity.

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Difference in sounds and calls

Elk and mule deer make entirely different sounds and calls, especially during mating season. Generally, only the males call for females. Elk are generally much louder than mule deer, and their calls can carry for miles.

Mule deer sounds and calls

Mule deer calls are usually softer and have a shorter range compared to elk. Mule deer grunt, snort, and bleat, especially during the rut. The rattling sound of antlers is also used by hunters to attract mule deer, as it mimics a common sound made by bucks.

Elk sounds and calls

Elk make a signature bugling sound in addition to grunts and barks. Bull elk bugle to show dominance and attract cows for mating. Their bugling call is loud, hollow, and multi-toned.

Overlap in habitat

Mule deer and elk have overlapping habitats, but their preferences vary greatly. Both species can be found in North America, but elk primarily inhabit the Rocky Mountains further north than the mule deer range.

Mule deer habitat preferences

Mule deer are well-adapted to living in arid conditions and can be found in desert scrublands, sagebrush steppes, and rocky mountain slopes. They prefer areas with shrubs to forage on and have a broad range that extends from Canada to Mexico.

Elk habitat preferences

Elk prefer meadows and open ranges in mountainous regions with thick grasses. They are less likely to be found in dry arid deserts where mule deer are commonly found. Elk tend to remain in the Rocky Mountains, particularly in the northern regions.

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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 >>