Elk Anatomy – Survival Mechanisms


Certain physical elements, mostly weather related, require the elk to adapt to their environment to survive. This adaptation ranges from specific body functions to changes in habitat in order to survive.

Body Adaptation

Several features of an elk’s anatomy, though unique to this animal, are actually adaptations for survival. Most prominent is the elk’s tight covering of hair that sheds heavy rain and keeps the elk dry even when rains last for days.

Another very unique feature of this hair is that it is hollow. When inspected under a low power microscope, an elk hair resembles a straw with both ends closed. This hollow coat of hair is invaluable for winter survival because it insulates the elk’s body from the brutal winds and bitter cold that is constant on the open prairies in winter.

Of course, the elk’s streamlined long, narrow body and long legs are perfect for outrunning predators or wind-whipped wild fires. The elk’s hooves are also useful for pawing through deep snow to get at grass below, or for driving away a predator.

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Habitat Adaptation

Many elk herds move through a yearly cycle of migration to seek food. Elk prefer to live in isolated areas, which usually means the most upper reaches in the mountains. However, in late fall winter snows quickly build up to several feet deep, and the elk are forced to migrate to lower elevations where the snow depth is less and there is more grass and browse available.

Unfortunately, much of the elk’s winter range has been supplanted by urban subdivisions, where elk can be seen trying to survive literally out some banker’s back door in a suburb of Denver, Colorado. Add to this the fact that vehicles and dogs take a toll on a wintering elk herd, and you have a very stressful winter season for the elk herd.

The elk eke out a meager living in this winter range, and hungrily nip off the first tender shoots of grass that appear in spring. As the snow line slowly moves up the mountain slopes, the elk follow it because they prefer to be in more isolated habitat.


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