Red Deer & North American Elk

I recently wrote a post on another blog about red deer, and noted this species was considered the same species as North American elk (Cervus elaphus). I received an immediate and definite post that they were, in fact, 2 different species.

It’s far from the first disagreement on my writing, but I have a deep interest in ungulates and the deer family in particular, so it did get me thinking. There seems to be quite a bit of disagreement. IUCN and the American Society of Mammalogists say red deer and elk are the same species. Valerius Geist, who I consider one of the world’s experts on deer, considers them separate species, as do the seemingly less reliable Groves & Grubb.

Having spent a lot of time elk watching, and some time red deer watching, I have to say I think of them as different animals. But field observation is so often wrong about all things taxonomic, no?

I know some of you are far more expert on taxonomy than I am. What do you think? One species or two species?


  • vdinets

    This particular split seems to be well justified. There is a considerable genetic distance, and hybridization in the wild seems to be a bit limited (Siberian elk has been introduced into parts of red deer range). It is actually a three-way split, because some Central Asian forms and Kashmir red deer form a third clade.

  • Jon Hall

    This is a comment from Bob Berghaier

    In systematic taxonomy you have “lumpers – those who see fewer species but numerous subspecies that can interbreed” versus “splitters – those who consider many subspecies as full species even though these can easily interbreed”. Many primatetologist are in my opinion “splitters” since it can help conservation efforts by declaring each subspecies a unique species and therefore more “worthy” of protection. The classification of prosimians in Madagascar is a good example of this. The number of lemur species has expanded greatly over the past 20 years, some justified, some prehaps not.

    Bob Berghaier

  • Jon Hall

    And this is a comment from me…

    I remember being surprised when I first saw American Elk and finding out they were the same species as Red Deer for the same reasons you (Matt) and Vladimir mention. I’ve given up trying to make much sense of this as there is no hard and fast rule (something else that surprised me – I had thought there would be some absolute conditions for deciding whether animals were conspecific), so for my list at least I typically follow the IUCN unless I know for sure some change is in the pipeline. Of course taxonomy’s raison d’etre is not to organise the world of mammal and bird listers. So, basically, I like to think they are two species but I treat them as one on my list in deference to IUCN

  • Don Roberson

    Ludt et al. (2004), using mtDNA, split Wapiti from Red Deer. This is consistent with Polzeihn & Storbeck (1998) who reviewed the 3-way split mentioned by Vladimir, and suggested that subspecies status for the 3 should be further reviewed and revised.

    sdd Polziehn, R.O. & C. Storbeck. 1998.
    Phylogeny of wapiti, red deer, sika deer, and other North American cervids as determined from mitochondrial DNA. Mol Phylog Evol. 10:249-58, and

    Ludt, Christian J.; Wolf Schroeder, Oswald Rottmann, and Ralph Kuehn. “Mitochondrial DNA phylogeography of red deer (Cervus elaphus)”. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 31 (2004) 1064–1083.

    Don Roberson

  • Morgan Churchill

    I believe there are also differences in the mating behavior of the 3 species, making them a potential BSC split as well.

    Unfortunately, there is much less interest in Mammal taxonomy compared to birds, and relatively little effort is made keeping a current “up to date” checklist on mammal taxonomy, at least compared to birds. In addition speciation is way way more difficult to study, and I suspect most mammals have much weaker biological selection against interbreeding than birds, which often have greater dispersal capabilities.

    I would treat European Red Deer, Elk, and Central Asian Red Deer as different species.

    ALSO, Handbook of Mammals of the World treats them as 3 species. Note that the non-bovid chapters in this book are pretty conservative for the most part.

  • mattinidaho

    Thanks all for the comments and information. Interesting stuff. These comments bring to mind a very interesting book, “Naming Nature” by Carol Kaesuk Yoon. It is a history of taxonomy, and makes some interesting arguments. People are hard-wired to categorize things, especially living things. For millenia, that was based on factors other than evolutionary history. The author argues that there is a place for folk taxonomy. It is a very interesting read, highly recommended for all of you who find this stuff interesting.

    Another title, a bit more academic but still readable, is D. Graham Burnett’s “Trying Leviathan.” It is the true account of a trial in New York in the 1800s to decide whether a whale is a fish or a mammal. That’s right, this was put on trial. Very interesting science history, and very insightful on how knowledge itself evolves.


  • Jurek

    It is mostly a matter of opinion. Red Deer and North American (and East Asian) Elk have some clear differences. But released North American deer interbred freely with red deer in Europe and some red deer populations have still those genes in their blood.

    I however feel that splitting them into more species: 3, 6 or more is definitely too much.

    Just a correction, that there is a big hunting pressure on deer in Tibet/C Asia area, so “limited hybridization” is a recent artifact, if exists at all.

  • Vladimir Dinets

    Jurek: the data on limited hybridization is from Ukraine and Moldova, where Siberian elk has been introduced in the 1950-s. It appears that hybrids have lower fitness, too.

  • Jurek

    Hi Vladimir,
    I mis-understood that you meant limited hybridization in Asia where western and eastern Red Deer meet naturally.

    In any case, North American wapitis were introduced in Austria and interbred with Red Deer. I think there could have been many more such attempts in Europe in 19.-early 20.century.

  • Farnboro John

    The issue in the UK is mostly about hybridisation between Red Deer and introduced Japanese Sikas.

    Red Deer bellow during the rut – quite unlike the squeal of either North American Elk or Sika, both of which to my relatively inexperienced ear sound alike. This must have an effect on mate attraction.

    The three are readily distinguishable visually. I have never understood why any of them should be considered conspecific and have happily ticked all three.


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