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Deer vs Moose vs Elk vs Caribou (What’s the Difference?)

Deer, moose, and elk are are mammals from the family Cervidae. They are hoofed, herbivorous animals that feed on grass and other vegetation. Although they are closely related, they differ in size, habitat, and behaviors.

A moose lying down

There are different types of deer including: elk, white tailed deer, red deer, fallow deer, caribou and moose. Each have their own unique characteristics and various similarities.

In this article, we’ll see how similar deer, elk, and moose are to each other, and explore some of the differences in behaviors and appearance that make them unique.

Similarities between Deer, Elk, Caribou, and Moose

Below are some of the similarities between deer, elk, caribou, and moose.

  • All deer are ruminants meaning that they have 4 chambered stomachs.
  • In all species of deer, males often fight over females for the rights to mate.
  • In all deer species males grow and lose their antlers on a yearly basis.
  • All deer feed on plant products making them herbivores.
  • Deer are considered animals of prey and are often hunted down by predators.
  • In all the species males are very territorial and often chase away other males from their territories.

Differences between Deer, Elk, Caribou, and Moose

Below is a table stating the differences between each:

MooseElkWhite-Tailed DeerCaribou
Size800-1300 pounds500-1000 pounds150-300 pounds275-660 pounds
LocationCanada and AlaskaMountain forests of North America & East Asia Southern Canada and most of the USAFound in north America, Europe, Asia and Greenland
GroupingsolitaryHerd animalSolitaryHerd animal
AntlersFlat wide antlers found only in malesTall sharp antlers found only in malesTall sharp antlers found only in malesTall curved antlers found in both males and females
AppearanceBulky faceDark mane on the neckSmall in size with white fur on the tail.Has a white coat on the neck

Related: Are Deer Related To Horses?

Deer vs Moose vs Elk vs Caribou 

Characteristics of White-Tailed Deer

White tailed deer are mostly found in North America, in the southern parts of Canada and most of the USA except from Alaska and Hawaii.

White tailed deer live in Woodlands. Their main predators are mountain lions and wolves. Other animals that prey on them are bobcats and coyotes who prey on young deer.

Because of hunting and urbanization of many places, most of their natural predators have either been killed or pushed away leading to an overpopulation of white-tailed deer. Their main predators now are human hunters.

Female deer usually live in family groups with their fawn. When the female is not taking care of its young they are usually solitary. Males usually live in groups of up to four individuals but usually become solitary during mating season.

In terms of appearance, white tailed deer is usually blown in color during summer but grow a gray brown coat during winter.

It also has white fur around its neck, eyes, nose, stomach and on the underside of its tail. Males usually grow antlers which they shared off after the mating season.

White tailed deer are herbivores meaning that they feed on grass, vegetation, and grains like corn. Their diet varies through the seasons depending on what food is available. They also have four stomach chambers making them ruminants. 

Their mating season varies from place to place. Female deer usually give birth to 1 – 3 babies after mating. It takes six months for the baby to fully develop after fertilization.

Read More: How Often Do Deer Have Babies?

Fawn are born with spots on their coat making them blend in with the vegetation. They are often left hidden in the vegetation as their mothers go to feed.

White-Tailed Deer
European Fallow Deer (Dama dama)

Characteristics of Elk

Elk are mostly found in the region West of the Rocky Mountains. They had almost become extinct because of excessive hunting but conservation efforts have helped revive their numbers.

They are mostly found in high mountain pastures. Their main predators are wolves and Cougars. They are also hunted by bears and coyotes which prey on young or sick elk.

Humans are also a major threat due to hunting. Excessive hunting for trophies had almost led to the extinction of the species.

Elk are herd animals. Elk cows graze in herds with their calves separately from the bulls. The herd is usually led by an elder cow. The only time they graze together with the males is during winter.

Their fur ranges from pale gray to brown. They have darker hairs underneath their chest and bellies. They also have short tails. Adult bulls have a dark mane on their throats and can grow antlers up to five feet in length.

Elk are also ruminants meaning that they have a four chambered stomach. They feed on vegetation with their diet varying from season to season.

Their mating season is between September and October. During rut bulls dig up wallows, urinate in them and roll in the soil giving each bull a unique scent that attracts females. Bulls build up harems of female cows with whom they mate with. Cow gestation period is between 240 to 262 days.

Olympic Elk
Olympic Elk (Cervus canadensis roosevelti)

Read Also: Do Moose Eat Plants?

Characteristics of Moose

Moose are the largest of the deer family. They are also the tallest mammals in North America.

Moose live in cold forested areas. Their large size makes it hard for them to survive in warm temperatures. During summer they are often seen cooling off in water areas.

Moose are browsers and love to feed on twigs. Their digestive system is similar to that of other deer. meaning that they are ruminants. This means that they have 4 stomach chambers.

Read More: Albino Deer Spiritual Meanings

Their mating seasons begins in early fall. The cows attract males with deep calls and the production of a strong sent.

Males often used their antlers to fight over the females for the right to mate. The antlers are also helpful in attracting the females. After the mating seasons the antlers fall off  one after the other. Females give birth to only one calf at a time.

Because they live in cold areas, moose usually grow a thick brown coat during winter, and can slow their metabolism to conserve energy when food is scarce. The hair is hollow helping them retain heat and keep warm. Their antlers grow large and flat and can stretch up to five feet.

Alaskan Moose
Alaskan Moose (Alces alces gigas)

Characteristics of Caribou

Caribou are mostly found in Alaska and Canada. They are also found in the northern regions of Europe and Asia.

They are commonly referred to as reindeer in Asia and Europe although the term is used to mean domesticated Caribou in Canada and America.

Caribou grow brown fur that is shaggy in appearance. Their neck, rump and undersides are often white in color. They also have a short tail with long legs and round hooves.

They are the only species of deer where both male and females have antlers. Because they live in cold regions they grow guard hairs to help keep them warm.

During mating season male Caribou build up harems of between 5 to 15 females. Mating season ranges from between October and November. The males often fight each other for the right to mate. The female’s gestation period is usually between 7 to 8 months when they give birth one or two calves. 

Caribou live in herds and move together in search of food and water. They can migrate thousands of miles each year in search of food and they are often domesticated and farmed for their meat and fur.

Read More: Can Deer Be Domesticated?

In summer their foot pads become soft to help them walk on the soggy ground but harden during winter. They are also very good swimmers and can be able to traverse large bodies of water.

Caribou in the snow
Caribou (Rangifer tarandus granti) are better-known as Reindeer

Conclusion

While deer, caribou, elk, and moose are from the same family of animals, there are also some key visible differences that can help you differentiate between them.

These include their size and their antlers. Where they live and whether they live alone or in herds are also key contrasts between each animal.

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