Elk Vs Reindeer

Written by Colby Maxwell
Published: February 27, 2022
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Elk and reindeer are very similar animals belonging to the deer family, but there are many differences between the two. While both animals belong to the Cervidae family, they live in slightly different regions of the world with occasional overlap.

Both elk and reindeer are large, deer-like animals that live in cold climates, primarily in herds. Reindeer sometimes go by caribou, primarily in North America, with some people only referring to domesticated caribou as reindeer. In Europe, however, reindeer can refer to either domesticated or wild populations. Let’s go over some of their main differences and find out what makes them unique.

Comparing elk and reindeer

Elk vs Reindeer
The main differences between elk and reindeer are their size, their habitat, and their relationship to humans.
ElkReindeer
Size and appearanceWeight: 377-1,300 lbs
Height: 5 feet at the shoulder
Antlers: only on males
Weight: 132-705 lbs
Height: 4.9 feet at the shoulder
Antlers: present on males and females
RangeCentral Asia through Siberia, North AmericaCircumpolar, Europe, Siberia, North America
HabitatOpen woodlands, boreal forests, moors, mountain grasslandsPolar and arctic climates, tundra, boreal and pine forests
Human useFarmed for meat, hunted in the wildFarmed for meat, milk, cheese and used as a draft animal

The main differences between elk and reindeer are their appearance, their range, and their relationship to humans. Let’s explore these in detail.

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When it comes to size, elk are bigger as they are 25-50% larger than reindeer (often referred to as caribou in North America). Additionally, only male elk have antlers, while both male and female reindeer have them. While both animals live in cold climates, elk are located in Central Asia and in some places through North America, and reindeer are usually further north in Europe, North America, and Siberia. Humans have been domesticating reindeer for thousands of years, while elk are farmed but not domesticated.

Elk Vs Reindeer: Size and appearance

Elk Vs Reindeer

Elk are larger than reindeer by a few hundred pounds.

©iStock.com/KenRinger

Elk are much larger than reindeer. On average, elk weigh between 650-850 lbs, but some can grow much larger when given time. Moose and elk are often confused, especially since both animals are so large (and a part of the deer family). Elk are the second largest members of the deer family, only behind moose. Male elk grow antlers while female elk don’t. Elk are covered in brown fur and usually have white bottoms, but this can change depending on the season and where they live.

Reindeer are large members of the deer family but still not as large as elk. On average, reindeer weigh between 350-400 lbs, with domesticated populations generally being a bit smaller. Reindeer can range in colors, often reflecting the region and season in which they live. White reindeer, for instance, are incredibly rare and caused by a genetic mutation that is separate from albinism.

Elk Vs Reindeer: Range

Elk Vs Reindeer

Elk live in Central Asia, Siberia, and North America. Reindeer live in northern Europe, Siberia, Greenland, and North America.

©Mark A Lee/Shutterstock.com

Elk have a range that extends across much of the world’s highlands. Their main populations are in Siberia, central Asia, and the highlands of North America. Colorado has the highest elk population anywhere in the world, with herds reaching 280,000 individuals. The historical range of elk has been reduced due to hunting, but their populations are on the rebound. Elk has recently been reintroduced into the Appalachian mountains on the east coast of the United States, where they now have stable populations. Additionally, they have been introduced to Australia and New Zealand. There are six subspecies of elk in North America.

Reindeer also have a relatively large range. They can pretty much be found anywhere in the arctic and have populations in North America, Greenland, Asia, Siberia, and the northern regions of Scandinavian countries. There are seven species of reindeer across the world.

Elk Vs Reindeer: Habitat

Elk Vs Reindeer

Elk prefer highland meadows and fields, while reindeer prefer the arctic.

©Dmitry Chulov/Shutterstock.com

Elk live in different habitats than reindeer and have adapted in different ways to suit them. Generally, elk prefer boreal forests and meadows, one of the reasons that Colorado is home to such high populations of them. Since elk live in warmer areas than reindeer do, their coats are thinner, and they have specially adapted hooves that are narrow and cloven. These narrow hooves keep them from sinking into the soft ground in the regions the frequent, especially where there are swamps and mud.

Reindeer are arctic animals that live in the coldest parts of the world. They are “circumpolar,” meaning they inhabit the range around the north pole. Large populations live in the arctic tundra, a vast expanse of rock, sparse grass, ice, and snow. Reindeer will also venture into forests, primarily boreal and pine, when they want to bed down. Their fur has two layers, a wooly undercoat for warmth and an outer coat that helps keep moisture out. Additionally, their hooves are wide and flat, perfect for walking through deep snow without sinking in.

Elk Vs Reindeer: Human use

Reindeer Being Milked

Reindeer are used for milk, cheese, meat, and fur.

©iStock.com/Katiekk2

Elk and reindeer are both used by humans but to vastly different lengths. Elk are almost entirely used by humans for meat and sport hunting. Although elk farming is new in North America, farms are created with two purposes: one is to provide elk meat to local restaurants and niche businesses, and the other is to provide a steady influx of farmed animals to hunt. Elk meat is known for its nutrition and has been eaten by modern people and natives for thousands of years.

Reindeer are used by humans even more than elk are. Domesticated reindeer have been used by native peoples all over the world for thousands of years and for more than just meat. Reindeer are bred and raised for their milk, cheese, meat, and fur and provide essential resources to natives even to this day. Additionally, reindeer are used as pack and draft animals for Siberian dwelling peoples, similar to how sled dogs are used in Alaska.

The photo featured at the top of this post is ©


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About the Author

Colby is a writer at A-Z Animals primarily covering outdoors, unique animal stories, and science news. Colby has been writing about science news and animals for five years and holds a bachelor's degree from SEU. A resident of NYC, you can find him camping, exploring, and telling everyone about what birds he saw at his local birdfeeder.

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