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Elk vs. Caribou: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Harlon Moss || Updated on June 7, 2024
Elk are large deer with impressive antlers found in North America and Eastern Asia, while caribou, also a deer species, are native to Arctic, Subarctic, tundra, and mountainous regions of northern Europe, Siberia, and North America.

Key Differences

The elk is recognized for its stately antlers, which are large and branch-like, contributing to its majestic appearance often portrayed in media and art. In contrast, caribou also possess antlers, but uniquely, both males and females adorn them, unlike the elk where typically only males have antlers.
Habitually, elk tend to occupy forests and forest edges, where their grazing and browsing can find ample sustenance. On the other hand, caribou are creatures largely of tundras and open plains, their migrations covering vast distances across the northern hemispherical expanses.
The elk, scientifically named Cervus canadensis, has a diverse diet which includes grasses, plants, and leaves, and it can be found in various habitats such as forests and plains across North America and parts of Asia. Divergently, caribou, or Rangifer tarandus, are often associated with nomadic behaviors, moving across large tundras, and feeding predominantly on a type of lichen known as reindeer moss, especially in winter.
Cultural and economical significance also distinguishes the elk and caribou; for example, elk are often hunted in North America for sport and sustenance, their antlers being a notable trophy. Contrastingly, caribou have a particularly integral role in indigenous Arctic cultures, not only as a food source but also for their hides and antlers, which are utilized in various tools, clothing, and traditional artifacts.
From a zoological perspective, while both elk and caribou belong to the deer family, Cervidae, the disparities in their physical characteristics, habitats, and behaviors have rendered them distinct species within their respective genera. Caribou and their semi-domesticated counterparts, reindeer, tend to be smaller and sturdier to navigate their often harsh, frigid environments, while elk, flaunting a more streamlined physique, are optimized for a variety of habitats ranging from plains to forests.

Comparison Chart


Forests and plains
Tundras and open plains

Antler-Bearing Gender

Mostly males
Both males and females


Grasses, plants, and leaves
Predominantly lichen in winter

Cultural Significance

Often hunted for sport and meat
Integral to Arctic cultures

Size and Build

Larger and more streamlined
Smaller and sturdier

Elk and Caribou Definitions


The elk is a large mammal known for its impressive, branching antlers primarily seen in males.
The hunter marveled at the elk’s majestic antlers silhouetted against the evening sky.


Caribou, known as reindeer in Europe, are robust, migratory deer native to Arctic and Subarctic regions.
The caribou’s powerful legs propelled it through the Arctic tundra with determined grace.


Elk, belonging to the genus Cervus, typically inhabit forests and plains in North America and Eastern Asia.
The tourists glimpsed a herd of elk gracefully navigating through the dense forest.


Caribou often feed on a specific type of lichen, known as “reindeer moss”, especially during winter months.
The caribou meticulously foraged for reindeer moss amidst the stark, snowy landscape.


Elk are herbivores that consume a variety of vegetation, including grasses, leaves, and bark.
In winter, the elk foraged diligently, seeking available grasses beneath the snowy blanket.


Caribou herds embark on some of the animal kingdom’s most extensive migratory journeys across tundras and plains.
A cloud of dust marked the horizon as the caribou herd migrated across the barren plains.


Elk herds are known for their seasonal migrations, traversing distances to find favorable feeding grounds.
Biologists studied the elk’s migration patterns to understand their habitat preferences.


Both male and female caribou notably grow antlers, which differ from other deer species.
The female caribou, with her own set of antlers, navigated through the sparse vegetation.


Elk have been symbolically and ecologically significant, being admired for their stature and playing a key role in various ecosystems.
Indigenous tales often revered the elk, embedding them in cultural narratives and art.


Caribou have a profound significance in various indigenous cultures, providing sustenance and materials.
The indigenous community utilized caribou hides to craft garments suitable for harsh, cold climates.


A large reddish-brown or grayish deer (Cervus canadensis) of western North America, having long, branching antlers in the male. The elk is sometimes considered a subspecies of the closely related red deer. Also called wapiti.


A large deer (Rangifer tarandus) of the Arctic tundra and northern boreal forests, having large hooves and long branched antlers. Subspecies native to Eurasia are usually called reindeer.


Chiefly British The moose.


Any of several North American subspecies of the reindeer, Rangifer tarandus.


A light, pliant leather of horsehide or calfskin, tanned and finished to resemble elk hide.


The American reindeer, especially the common or woodland species (Rangifer Caribou).


Arctic deer with large antlers in both sexes; called reindeer in Eurasia and caribou in North America


Do both male and female elk grow antlers?

Typically, only male elk grow large, branching antlers, while females do not.

Where are elk commonly found?

Elk are primarily found in North America and Eastern Asia, inhabiting forests and plains.

Is it true that female caribou also have antlers?

Yes, uniquely among deer species, both male and female caribou grow antlers.

What do caribou primarily feed on in winter?

Caribou often feed on a lichen known as "reindeer moss" during the winter months.

How large can elk antlers grow?

Elk antlers are substantial, with some recorded to be over 4 feet long and weigh about 40 pounds.

How do caribou navigate their migratory routes?

Caribou use environmental cues and potentially a magnetic sense to navigate their extensive migratory routes.

What challenges do caribou populations currently face?

Caribou populations are threatened by factors like climate change, habitat loss, and increased predation.

Do caribou migrate long distances?

Yes, caribou undertake one of the longest land migrations, traversing hundreds of miles to access seasonal feeding grounds.

Are there different subspecies of elk?

Yes, there are several subspecies of elk, including the Roosevelt elk and Rocky Mountain elk, differentiated by habitat and size.

Are reindeer and caribou the same species?

Yes, they are the same species, but the name "reindeer" is commonly used in Europe and Asia, while "caribou" is used in North America.

Is elk meat consumed by people?

Yes, elk meat, or venison, is consumed and is known for being lean and rich in flavor.

How significant are elk to North American ecosystems?

Elk play a vital role in maintaining ecological balance in North American ecosystems, influencing vegetation and predator populations.

What predators do elk commonly face?

Elk are preyed upon by wolves, bears, and mountain lions, among other predators.

What regions do caribou inhabit?

Caribou are native to the Arctic, Subarctic, and northern regions of Europe, Siberia, and North America.

How do elk adapt to winter conditions?

Elk migrate to lower elevations during winter to access food and avoid deep snow, utilizing their fat reserves.

What is a primary food source for elk?

Elk consume a varied diet including grasses, plants, and leaves, often foraging in forests and plains.

How do caribou handle the extreme Arctic winters?

Caribou are well-adapted to cold, with thick fur and a specialized nose that warms incoming air, and they forage for lichen beneath the snow.

Are elk and caribou the same species?

No, while both are deer species, elk and caribou are distinct in terms of physical characteristics, habitats, and behaviors.

How are caribou significant to indigenous cultures?

Caribou are integral, providing food, clothing, and tools, and holding cultural and symbolic importance in indigenous Arctic and Subarctic communities.

Are caribou subject to predation in their habitats?

Yes, caribou face predation from wolves, bears, and occasionally, eagles targeting fawns.
About Author
Written by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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