Caribou vs Elk: 8 Main Differences Explained

Written by AZ Animals Staff
Published: August 10, 2021


While elk and caribou share many similarities there are several differences between these two mammals. Elk and caribou are both members of the deer family and are herbivores. However, an adult elk is taller and weighs more than an adult caribou. When it comes to antlers, only male elk have them whereas antlers are found on both female and male caribou.

Both mammals have dense coats of fur that help them withstand cold temperatures. However, they live in different places. Caribou are found in boreal forests and on the Arctic tundra. Alternatively, elk live in forests and meadows in North America, eastern Asia, and elsewhere in the world.

Check out some more information about the significant differences between these two members of the Cervidae family!

Comparing Caribou vs Elk

CaribouElk
Size350 lbs. – 400 lbs.650 lbs. – 850 lbs.
Lifespan12 to 15 years8 to 12 years
HabitatBoreal forests and on the Arctic tundra. They live in North America, Greenland, Asia, and Europe.Forests and meadows in North America, Argentina, New Zealand, Australia, and eastern Asia
SpeciesRangifer tarandus
They are known as reindeer in Europe, and there are seven subspecies of caribou.
Cervus canadensis
They are sometimes called wapiti, and there are six subspecies of elk in North America.
Coat colorLarger species have a light to dark brown coat while smaller species can have white fur.Their coat can be red or gray paired with an area of white hair on their rump.
AntlersMale and female caribou have antlers; their antlers are C-shaped.Only male elk have antlers. They are long and tall antlers with several points.
SoundsGruntingBugling/Whistling
Hoof shapeBroad-shaped, cloven hooves with hair.Crescent-shaped, narrow, cloven.

The 8 Key Differences Between Caribou and Elk

To truly compare and contrast these two animals, here are a few of the key differences that separate them.

Caribou vs Elk: Size

An adult elk is taller and weighs more than an adult caribou. Specifically, an adult elk can grow to a height ranging from 56 to 68 inches from its hooves to its withers. Alternatively, a caribou measures from 34 to 62 inches tall.

In terms of weight, an adult elk ranges from 650 to 850 pounds! An adult caribou weighs from 350 to 400 pounds.

Caribou vs Elk: Lifespan

The lifespan of these two mammals accounts for another difference between them. Normally, elk don’t live as long as caribou. The lifespan of an elk is 8 to 12 years whereas a caribou’s lifespan ranges from 12 to 15 years.

Caribou vs Elk: Habitat

Another difference between these two animals has to do with habitat. Many caribou live on the Arctic tundra. They have an undercoat with a wooly texture along with an upper coat that repels moisture that helps to keep them warm. Also, a caribou’s hooves are broad and flat allowing them to keep their balance while walking across snow and ice.

Elk live in forests, meadows, and sometimes near swampy areas. Their narrow, cloven hooves help them to walk on the soft, moist ground of their woodland habitat.

Caribou vs Elk: Species

Though elk and caribou belong to the same Cervidae family, they are different species. The scientific name of an elk is Cervus canadensis. The scientific name of a caribou is Rangifer tarandus.

There are seven subspecies of caribou. These include:

  • Barren-ground caribou (Rangifer tarandus granti)
  • Svalbard caribou (R.t platyrhynchus)
  • European caribou (R.t. tarandus)
  • Finnish forest reindeer (R.t. fennicus)
  • Greenland caribou (R.t. groenlandicus)
  • Woodland caribou (R.t. caribou)
  • Peary caribou (R.t. pearyi)

The six subspecies of elk in North America include:

  • Roosevelt’s elk (C. c. roosevelti)
  • Tule elk (C. c. nannodes)
  • Manitoban elk (C. c. manitobensis)
  • Rocky Mountain elk (C. c. nelsoni)
  • Eastern elk (C. c. canadensis; extinct)
  • Merriam’s elk (C. c. merriami; extinct)

Caribou vs Elk: Coat Color

Caribou and elk have different colored fur. In fact, the fur coat of each animal changes color depending on the season of the year.

Elk can have a gray or even a white coat in the wintertime. When the season changes, an elk sheds its winter coat and takes on reddish-brown fur for the spring and summer.

A caribou’s coat can be silvery-white or light brown during the winter season. The color varies with different types of caribou. In the summertime, a caribou’s coat turns light to dark brown.

Caribou vs Elk: Antlers

In terms of size, a caribou’s antlers are larger than an elk’s antlers. There’s also a difference in shape. Caribou have C-shaped antlers whereas elk have long, tall antlers featuring several points.

Caribou vs Elk: Sounds

Most animals have some ways to communicate with one another. Caribou and elk both communicate but with different sounds. An elk is known for its bugling sounds during the breeding season. This sound is high-pitched and has been compared to a whistling howl. Alternatively, a caribou uses grunts to communicate with the members of its herd.

Caribou vs Elk: Hoof Shape

Caribou are able to survive on the Arctic tundra due to several adaptations. One of those adaptations involves their hooves. They are broad and flat which allows them to step across the slippery ground without losing their balance and falling.

An elk’s hooves are narrower in design and cloven so they can walk on the moist grass, mud, or dry ground in their forest habitat.

Next Up: Bowfin vs Snakehead: The 5 Key Differences

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Are elk and caribou the same thing?

No. Though these animals belong to the Cervidae family, they’re different species. Some basic differences include their size, habitat, hooves, lifespan, and the ways they communicate.

Can a caribou and elk mate?

Though there have been stories of hybrid caribou/elk wandering around in the woods, this is very unlikely to be true. After all, they are different species.