Friday, May 23, 2008

The Life of an Elk

We first encountered this elk last summer at a place of historic and ceremonial significance, and then again this week in the same neck of the woods.

To obscure his whereabouts, I'll simply refer to him as "Elmer."

Elmer appears to be a healthy fellow, and according to a herd report from last October, Elmer was one of the stars of the Fall 2007 rut:

Elk breeding season, known as “the rut”, is in full swing in the Great Smoky Mountains. The rut is the several-week breeding period when the cows cycle into estrus and the bulls compete for dominance to mate with the cows. A bull’s behavior will change significantly during the rut. They will have swollen necks, much like white-tail deer and will be seen rubbing their antlers against trees and the ground. They will scrape a bare spot on the ground with their hooves and antlers and urinate in it before wallowing there. This spreads their scent across their body, announcing their presence to females and other bulls alike.

A more noticeable announcement of their presence is bugling; a call the bulls make that can be heard up to a mile away in some terrains. This advertises his fitness to the cows, or challenges other bulls. If another bull accepts the challenge, the two will lock antlers and fight until an order of dominance is established. Typically, only the bigger, stronger bulls have a chance to mate with the females ensuring that the strongest genes are passed on to the offspring. When a cow cycles into estrus it lasts for less than 24 hours, so the herd bull must remain attentive, even while other bulls are challenging him.

The dominant bull for 2007 has been difficult to determine, as several bulls have taken the position for a short time before being defeated by another bull. During the first week in September the two dominant bulls from 2006, #3 (6x6) and #16 (6x7), returned to Cataloochee. These bulls remained about 20 miles apart in opposite directions from Cataloochee during most of the year but returned to the Valley within one day of each other. The same behavior was seen last year when they returned, fought, and divided the cows into two harems for the remainder of the breeding season. This year they again divided the cows into two harems.

However, over the past several weeks they have each lost their harems to other bulls including #21, #7, and Elmer. Perhaps the most impressive bull is Elmer, a wide, symmetrical 6x6. He is just 4 years old but is one of the largest bulls in the herd and probably has the widest antlers of all of them. Elmer had control over most of the cows for several weeks and was even seen breeding a couple of cows in the late afternoons. However, he has since been replaced again by #16.
Elmer is losing his winter coat, so he looks a bit ragged right now, but he is still a magnificent animal and it was good to see him again.
[I should add that no National Park rules were violated to obtain these photos.]

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