Elk vs Deer: 8 Key Differences Explained

Written by Patrick Sather
Updated: October 24, 2023
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All elk are deer, but not all deer are elk. If this sentence is difficult to grasp, don’t worry, we’re here to help clear up any confusion. The term “deer” encompasses a broad meaning, but in the context of conversation concerning elk and deer, it stands to mean any deer that is not an elk. This is an important distinction to make because deer and elk both belong to the same family, Cervidae, which includes other hoofed ruminants such as moose, muntjac, and reindeer (also known as caribou). They primarily eat a vegetarian diet, and males grow antlers that they periodically shed and regrow throughout their lives. That said, despite these similarities, a number of differences exist that distinguish elk vs deer. 

In this article, we’ll help you to discover how you can tell the two species apart. We’ll discuss 8 critical attributes that separate elk vs deer, and also answer some frequently asked questions in case we forget anything. By the time we’re finished, you’ll understand that although elk and deer appear similar, they also possess unique traits. Here are the 8 key differences between elk and deer. 

Comparing Elk and Deer

Size3 to 5 feet tall
375 to 1,100 pounds
2 to 4 feet tall
100 to 400 pounds
HabitatForested mountainous regionsGrasslands, plains, deserts, and forests
Branching antlers
Up to 4 feet long
Spiked or branched antlers
Coat and ColorThicker coat
Shaggy hair and mane
Brown and gray
Shorter coat
No mane
Brown or red, white parts, turn gray in winter
SpeedUp to 45 miles per hourVaries by species, between 30 to 45 miles per hour
DietGrasses, forbs, tree bark, twigs, and shrubsLeaves, twigs, fruits, nuts, grasses, corn, alfalfa, sedges, lichens, and fungi
SoundLoud bugling calls, particularly malesBleats, grunts, and high-pitched squeals
Two rounded, parallel halves

The 8 Key Differences Between Elk and Deer

Animals That Molt - Elk

Elk tend to grow bigger than deer, and sport larger antlers and shaggier coats.

©Ghost Bear/Shutterstock.com

Elk and Deer: Size

The most noticeable difference between elk vs deer is their respective sizes. On average, elk grows much larger than common deer species such as white-tailed deer, red deer, roe deer, and mule deer. Elk sport thicker, more robust bodies, and stand taller at the shoulders. Males can weigh anywhere from 400 to 1,100 pounds, while females usually weigh between 375 and 650 pounds. They stand between 3 and 5 feet tall, although some especially long-legged elk can grow even taller. Meanwhile, most deer stand only 2 to 4 feet tall. In addition, deer do not weigh nearly as much as elk. Typically, male deer weigh between 100 and 300 pounds, but large bucks can reach up to 450 pounds. Standing side-by-side, it’s easy to spot this clear difference in height and weight between elk and deer. 

Elk and Deer: Habitat

Contrary to popular belief, elk and deer prefer different habitats. Overall, elk prefer to live in forested, mountainous regions, although they tend to shun denser forests for more open wooded places. Throughout the seasons, they may migrate between elevations, spending more time at higher elevations during some parts of the year than others. Meanwhile, deer live in more varied habitats, including deserts, plains, grasslands, woodlands, and the tundra. Like elk, some species may migrate over the course of the seasons. In addition, their distribution is slightly different. Elk live throughout North America, and Central, and East Asia, while deer also live in Europe, South Asia, and South America. 

Elk and Deer: Antlers 

Although they appear similar, there exist several differences in the antlers of male elk vs deer. When considering elk and deer of the same age, elk antlers are larger. Mature elk antlers can weigh up to 20 pounds each, and reach up to 4 feet long. They may also contain more branches than the antlers of a similarly-aged deer. At all ages, deer antlers measure smaller than elk antlers. In addition, the antlers of younger deer contain fewer branches compared to elk and look more like spikes. As deer mature, their antlers tend to develop more branches, which curve slightly inward toward their face.

Elk and Deer: Coat and Color

The coat of an elk vs deer looks similar at first but get up close and you’ll notice numerous small particularities that make them unique. Generally, the coats of elk grow thicker and longer than deer. In addition, elk sport a shaggy mane around their upper chest and neck, which helps to keep them warm in winter and colder climates where elk typically live. Their coats tend to look brown and grey, while their legs appear more black. Given that many deer species live in warmer climates, they usually grow shorter coats than elk. Also, most deer sport uniform coats, and do not grow manes like elk. Deer come in a range of colors from brown to red to beige. However, many deer species will change color during the winter, and their coats will appear grayer to match their surroundings. 

Elk and Deer: Speed

Both elk and deer can run at fast speeds, and historically boasted reputations as fleet-footed animals. However, the maximum speed of elk vs deer can differ depending on the species used for the comparison. At top speed, elk can run up to 45 miles per hour, although they can only maintain that speed for short bursts. Meanwhile, most deer species can reach a top speed of between 30 and 45 miles per hour. For example, white-tailed deer reach speeds up to 35 miles per hour, while evidence exists of mule deer running up to 45 miles per hour. 

Elk and Deer: Diet

Although they are both herbivores, the diets of elk vs deer differ in a few regards. Elk primarily subsist on grasses, twigs, tree bark, forbs, and shrubs. In particular, they prefer certain grasses, forbs, and tree bark when plentiful, such as bluegrass, wheatgrass, clover, geraniums, irises, aspen, choke, cherry, and oak. While deer also consume grasses, forbs, twigs, and tree bark in large quantities, they also enjoy eating other foods. For example, deer also like to eat leaves, fruits, nuts, corn, and alfalfa. In addition, they may eat lichen or fungi, especially in leaner months during the winter. 

Elk and Deer: Sound

Even non-hunters and laypeople can easily distinguish the sounds made by elk vs deer. Elk, especially males, emit loud, distinctive bugling calls. These calls can vary from a sharp bark to a deep, guttural grunt. Although deer typically act quietly and make few sounds, they can still make unique vocalizations. Normally, deer sounds are more hoarse and high-pitched than those made by elk. Enthusiasts often describe deer sounds as bleats, similar to those made by a goat, or as a high-pitched squeal. 

Elk and Deer: Tracks

The last difference between elk vs deer concerns their tracks. Both elk and deer are hoofed ruminants, meaning they grow hooves made of hard keratin, which is the same material as human fingernails. However, the tracks of elk and deer look very different from one another. Elk tracks appear tooth-shaped, and consist of two rounded, parallel halves side-by-side. Meanwhile, deer tracks look more heart-shaped. They also appear more delicate, which is due to the deer’s lighter frame and softer footfalls. 

Frequently Asked Questions Concerning Elk and Deer

Deer tend to grow smaller than elk, although they both belong to the same family.


How many species of deer are there?

There currently exist 43 species within the family Cervidae. 

Do all male deer grow antlers? 

Almost all male deer grow antlers, with the exception being the Chinese water deer, which instead grow prominent tusks. In addition, female reindeer also grow antlers

Do Elk Ever Mate With Deer?

An offspring of an elk and a deer is said to have the same coloring as the elk.

©SeanXu/ iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

There are certain species in the animal kingdom that are not able to mix and some that are, which is known as hybridization. Certain species of deer are able to intermix, like the White-tailed deer and mule deer. There are also instances of farm-raised, or captive stock, red deer and elk, that have mated and as they are close enough in lineage, have been able to produce viable offspring that are themselves fertile and able to produce.

While it shouldn’t be possible, due to the difference in their DNA, in particular their chromosome counts, (elk have 68 chromosomes, deer have 70) there are other species with differences in chromosomes that have been able to mix as well. This may not be a common occurrence, but it can occur. This hybrid between an American elk and a mule deer is said to be smaller than an elk, with its same coloring, and thinner antlers than a mule deer.

The photo featured at the top of this post is ©

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