By Jeremy Banfield, Elk Biologist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission
Despite the cold and snow that shrouds most of Pennsylvania during the winter months, elk are one of many species that are well adapted to this climate. Several physiological and behavioral adaptations enable these animals to endure the winter months.
In general, large bodied animals such as elk have a lower surface to volume ratio and can cope with colder temperatures than smaller animals. Ruminants, like elk and other members of the deer family, possess a rumen that carries a broad suite of micro-organisms that enable the elk to break down and digest plants. One of the main by-products of the digestion process is heat, so rumen essentially acts as a built-in furnace to aid in keeping the animals warm on cold winter days and nights.
If you’ve ever seen a group of elk bedded down during a snow storm, you might have noticed that the snow will literally accumulate on the animal’s bodies without melting. A dense underlayer of fur, covered over by longer guard hairs help to trap air against the body of the elk, providing an insulating effect. This insulation is so good the snow that lands on them won’t even melt!
Long stout legs allow elk to travel efficiently in deep snow and serve as powerful digging tools, to reach grasses and other forage buried under the snow.
Elk will also adapt their behavior to reduce heat loss and conserve energy during the winter months. Patches of conifer trees provide cover from strong winds and will often have lower snow depths than the surrounding area. Elk will regularly shelter in these types of habitats to mitigate their exposure to winter conditions. South and Southwest facing slopes are also more likely to be free of snow due to wind and sun exposure, and elk will regularly forage and rest in these areas.
At times, people may get the false perception that elk and other wildlife need supplemental feed to help them survive the winter, overlooking the amazing adaptations these animals naturally possess. On the contrary, artificially feeding elk can cause the animals to die from rumen acidosis, increases transmission of disease, and leads to habituation. Because of this, intentionally feeding elk is illegal in Pennsylvania.
Around the middle of March as the winter lion yields to the spring-time lamb, bull elk will begin to shed their antlers. This natural phenomenon is due to changes in day length, or photo-period, that cause a drop in testosterone levels, ultimately causing the elk’s antlers to separate from the pedicles and fall off. New antlers begin growing in just a few short weeks, and the cycle begins again. A bull’s antlers will typically get larger with each year of age, as long as the animal stays healthy and can find adequate forage.
Searching for shed antlers has become a popular spring activity for many Pennsylvanians. Antlers that have been naturally cast can be picked up and kept by whoever is lucky enough to find them. However, shed antlers cannot be removed from private property without permission, and antlers may not be picked up, moved, or removed from National Parks.
Photos courtesy of Jacob Dingel and Hunter Harris.