Elk In The Winter (How Do They Handle The Cold?)

Elk, also called wapiti, are one of the larger species of deer and the biggest terrestrial mammals in North America.

When we think of elks, we often picture them in green pastures, so you may wonder how elk fare in the winter.

Elks do well in the winter thanks to their thick insulated coats that they grow during the fall to prepare for the colder months. They also survive on forbs and grass, which elk will eat even if they are covered in snow. 

However, there is a lot more to the elk than meets the eye. Come join us here at Floofmania as we take a deeper look at elks in the winter!

Do Elk Live In The Cold?

Elks do live in the cold, but they are hardy creatures that can thrive in all seasons.

For instance, elks are known to live in states like Wyoming, which is known for its cold winters. 

However, elks will be present year-round in the areas they live in, so they will adapt to the summer, spring, and fall as well.

You can learn more about where elks live by checking out our other article, The Elk’s Habitat.

What Temperatures Do Elk Prefer?

Elk likely prefer moderate temperatures during the spring and fall, which is when they can easily forage and roam around.

While they can easily handle harsher temperatures, elk will have to change their habits during the summer and winter to survive. An example of a habit that they change is by walking less to conserve energy to better maintain their body temperatures.

To learn more, take a look at our related article, When Are Elk The Most Active?

Up To What Temperatures Can Elk Tolerate?

Elks can easily withstand various degrees of temperature. For the colder seasons, they are capable of handling cold temperatures of -40° F or -40° C.

As for hotter temperatures, elks can deal with warm temperatures of up to 100° F or 38° C.

How Do Elk Deal With Cold Climates?

The main way elk deal with cold climates is by having a winter coat since elks have two coats, a summer coat, and a winter coat. 

In the winter, elks grow a thicker coat that serves as insulation for their bodies. These winter coats have two layers, which are an undercoat and an overcoat

The undercoat is dense, which helps heat stay within their fur and against their skin to keep their bodies warm.

The second coat is composed of long and thick guard hairs. The main purpose of the guard hairs is to protect the underlying skin and fur from dirt and water.

Additionally, the guard hairs help keep the elk warm from snowfall. In all mammals including elk, each guard hair has a lot of small air pockets that look like a honeycomb. 

When snow falls on the elk, the guard hairs will keep the snow from seeping through to the undercoat and melting on the skin. Instead, the snow will slip off of the elk’s back.

A fun little way elk also like to keep warm is by tucking their legs under their bodies whenever they lie down. This helps them retain heat within their belly, chest, and legs.

How Are Elk Adapted For The Cold?

Other than their thick winter coats that we mentioned earlier, elk have a few other ways of staying warm during the winter. A few examples are:

  • The Elk’s Rumen Creates Heat While Digesting Food
  • Elks Have Adapted Behavior For Energy Conservation
  • Long Legs Help Elk Walk In The Snow

So, let’s break down how each of these adaptations works to keep elk warm in the winter.

The Elk’s Biggest Stomach, The Rumen, Creates Heat While Digesting 

Similar to other larger mammals like cows, elk have four stomachs, and the one that helps keep them warm is the rumen.

The rumen is the largest stomach and houses a lot of microorganisms that help elk digest plants.

Heat is produced during the digestion process, and the heat will be released throughout the body.

As such, the rumen helps the elk stay warm by working like an internal furnace when the elk digests.

Elks Have Adapted Behavior For Energy Conservation

While elk are more active in the winter, that does not mean they are full of energy. They still have adapted behavior habits to conserve energy.

Elk can maintain a constant body temperature with metabolic heat production, and metabolic heat production relies on energy from food. If too much energy gets expended from movement, there will be little energy left for metabolic heat production.

As such, you may notice that elk will opt for areas with lower snow depths. That way, they will not have to struggle as much when walking through the snow. They will also try to walk less.

This is a unique adaption considering elk can run very fast and rely on walking for survival, which you can learn more about in our article Elk and Running (How Fast Can They Go?).

Elk may not stray far from their given area in the winter. They will likely stay nearby areas that have the most vegetation to avoid walking far for food.

Elk may also opt to rest more during the harsher parts of the winter. When they rest, they are effectively conserving their energy while maintaining their body temperature.

Longer Legs Make It Easier For Elk To Walk In The Snow

Notably, one of the main features of elks is their long legs, and these legs help them stay warm!

Due to the length of their legs, elks can easily walk through the snow while conserving energy because they are using fewer steps to reach their destination.

To add to that, their lengthy limbs serve as tools. Elk use their legs to dig through the snow to forage for vegetation hidden under the snow.

However, these long legs can come at a disadvantage at times. Since blood that circulates through their legs would be further from their bodies, they would radiate less heat. This is why elk like to lie over their legs to their legs and undersides warm. 

Do Elk Hibernate?

Elk do not hibernate during the winter. Thanks to their thick insulated fur coats, adapted behaviors and bodies, and their ability to eat the vegetation left in the winter, they do not have to hibernate.

It is a common misconception that animals like elk hibernate. If anything, they simply slow down during the colder months to preserve energy, but they will never be in true hibernation.

Do Elk Change Their Color In Winter?

Elk do change their colors in the winter. When the temperature drops, they sport a light brown coat with a dark brown and thick mane that goes around their necks and down their chests, belly, and legs.

In contrast, they have reddish tan coats in the summer, and their manes may not be as noticeable. 

Where Do Elk Go In Winter?

Where elk choose to go in the winter will highly depend on the area and the harshness of the winter.

For example, the elk in Colorado will stay at high elevations on the south-facing slopes during the milder winters. If the winter is not strong, the elk can manage the snow depths. 

On the other hand, these elk will move to lower elevations during the colder winters to avoid deep snow and have more access to food. Lower elevations typically have less snow than higher elevations.

In some cases, elk will opt to be near river bottoms, which provide plenty of trees for thermal cover.

A thermal cover is a type of habitat that naturally protects animals from extreme temperatures.

In the winter, the type of thermal cover elk will go for is thick trees, which they will rest under. These trees will hold warm air close to the earth, break chilly winds, and catch snow before the snow falls to the ground. 

Therefore, there is enough cover for them to be protected from heavy snowfall and stay warmer under thermal cover. 

Do Elk Migrate To Warmer Places In Winter?

As mentioned earlier, elk move to warmer areas during the winter when needed. Elk are migratory animals, so they will move as needed to seek better shelter.

It is unlikely that elk will travel very far, however. For instance, elk in Idaho will still stay in Idaho, but they will just walk to warmer parts of Idaho during the winter.

However, it is worth noting that elk do not always have to migrate in the winter. For instance, moderate weather changes will not cause elk to migrate.

Normally, Roosevelt Elk that live in Washington, Oregon, and California do not migrate since there are not a lot of weather changes between the summer and winter.

How Far Will Elk Travel?

The distance elk will go will depend on how harsh the winter would be for them when migrating. Normally, elks that do migrate can travel 20-100 miles between their winter and summer ranges.

What Do Elk Eat In The Winter?

Elk will usually eat whatever vegetation they can find in the winter, so it will vary depending on the area. Some examples of the type of plants that they can find and eat in the winter are:

  • Twigs and tree bark
  • Shrubs
  • Grass 

Usually, much of the shrubbery and grass will be covered in snow. Luckily, elk can eat the snow-covered vegetation without a problem.

During the heavier winters, elk may focus on eating dry grass and bark, which is normally aspen bark. They may also eat cattails, which is something they normally would not eat during the summer months when more vegetation is available.

Do Elk Eat Snow For Water?

Elk will eat snow for water. In the winter, most of the water sources, such as rivers and streams, will likely be frozen. The elk will adapt and eat snow to hydrate.

Of course, given that there is an open water source available, elk will drink from that instead. For instance, ponds with broken ice will serve as good sources of water for elk. 

Will Elk Fatten Up Before The Cold Months?

Elk do not fatten up before the winter because they will not go into hibernation.

Instead, elk do the opposite! Elk often start reducing their food intake during the late fall months before winter.

The winter will not offer much food for them to eat, so their stomachs get adjusted to this change before the winter.

However, that does not mean that they are skinny when winter comes. Elk will still have plenty of fat stores that they will use in the winter for energy and warmth.

When elk do get a chance to eat more, the excess food will become fat stores.

Author: Allison Marie Dinglasan

Hello! I am Allison, an avid writer for 6 years with a deep interest in animals since I was a child. I grew up on Animal Planet and animal books and often did rescue work for stray and sickly cats, dogs, and birds in my area, which led to over 60 rescues. My future goal is to be a veterinarian to have a more hands-on approach to helping and learning about animals!

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