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Reindeer vs elk

Do you know which of these deer has the largest antlers and which survives in the coldest regions?

Reindeer, Rangifer tarandus


Distribution: Arctic and Subarctic

Diet: reindeer moss, other vegetation 

Height: 1.2-1.5m at shoulder

Weight: 109-318kg

Defence: both sexes have antlers, 135cm high

Lifespan: 15 years

Colour: Brown; lighter with latitude

 Risk: Least concern

Elk (wapiti), Cervus canadensis 

 Distribution: North America and eastern Asia

 Diet: Grasses, plants, leaves, bark

 Height: 1.2-1.5m at shoulder

 Weight: 147-499kg

 Defence: males have antlers, 1.2m high

 Lifespan: 8-12 years

 Colour: reddish hue, buff rump.

 Risk: Least concerno.



Reindeer are present in Arctic and Subarctic tundra and taiga, whilst elk habituate forests and forest edges of North America and eastern Asia. Elk are highly adaptable and are also found in the American semi-deserts.



Elk graze on grasses, plants and bark, while reindeer eat their namesake lichen (reindeer moss), as well as grasses and the leaves of willow and birches. It’s possible that reindeer opportunistically eat small mammals and some bird eggs.



Reindeer colour varies with latitude from light grey to dark brown, with the most northern populations being lighter in colour and smaller in body size. Reindeer have a lighter coloured neck and rump compared to the rest of the body, and only the males have antlers. Elk are more consistently brown, although forest dwelling populations tend to be darker. Their body is lighter than their head, neck and limbs. Both male and female elk have antlers, and are the 2nd largest living deer species.



Both species are able to defend themselves from predators and conspecifics using their antlers, and a strong kick of the front legs. Antlers are also put to use during rutting season, when males will fight for dominance over a group of females. The antlers of the reindeer are generally larger than those of the elk, but this depends on sub-species. When antlers are being shed, the deer often form groups for better defence.

The fur of both species is made up of two layers – a dense woolly undercoat and a longer overcoat for insulation. The elks’ fur becomes thicker in winter, to further resist the cold. The reindeer’s hooves can adapt to the season, being soft in the summer, and shrinking to expose the hoof in the winter, allowing them to cut through the ice.



Although some subspecies are rare, the reindeer and elk species have a classification of ‘least concern’ from the IUCN. Both are an important part of many cultures, with the reindeer of course being an old favourite thanks to its place in stories about Father Christmas. Both species are hunted for their meat and leather, although currently at sustainable levels.