San Francisco State University
Department of Geography
Geography 316: Biogeography

The Biogeography of the Tule Elk (Cervus elaphus nannodes)
by Rachel Kanewske, student in Geography 316, Fall 2000

The Tule Elk of California

              Photo by Gary Ferrence 
        Adult male Tule elk posing for a good photo.
 
 

Tule Elk of California

Habitat

Natural History

Evolution

Resources

Kingdom: Animalia 
      Phylum: Chordata 
           Class: Mammalia 
                 Order: Artiodactyla 
                         Family: Cervidae
                              Genus: Cervus
                                Species:  Cervus elaphus nannodes 
                                                  (Tule Elk/ Wapiti) 


Description of Species: The Tule Elk considered the smallest of all the Elk species in North America is endemic to California.  The adult bulls have an average weight of 450-500 lbs., with some topping the scales at up to 700lbs.  The adult cows average 375-425 lbs (McCullough, 1969). The yearlings (spike bulls) average the same weight as the adult females (McCullough, 1969). The coats are a light buffy beige with a darker brown long haired mane circling the necks of both the males and females.  The calves are similar to regular deer calves, with a light brown spotted coat.  All animals display a prominent white rump.  They average 7 feet in length and stand 4-5 feet in height at the shoulder. The male yearlings are also known as spikes, during their first year of antler growth they only have one antler that is very thin and spindly compared to the large six point racks that the dominant males demonstrate.  The females do not have antlers and the males drop theirs annually which re-grow a little larger with more tines as the yearling ages.

Habitat: The Tule Elk thrive in the moderate Mediterranean climate and subsequent vegetation type in its native range.    Its original pristine distribution was quite large stretching from the Sacramento Valley to the San Joaquin Valley to the Sierra Nevada Foothills in the East and all the way to the coast in the west (McCullough,1969). It was estimated that half a million animals roamed these regions and that the grandness of the scene has only been likened to what is seen in the Serengeti.  Being herbivorous creatures, they thrived on the grasslands and in the marshes of the river valleys.   The Tule Elk also shared its range with antelope (Antilocapra americana americana) and deer (Odocoileus hemionus ssp). (McCullough, 1969)

Diet: The Tule Elk forage on annual grasses such as the red brome (Bromus rubens) and cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), as well as the perennial forbs like, globe mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua), and wild licorice (Glycyrrhiza lepidota).  In addition to the above mentioned grasses, alfalfa is also very important to the herd's diet. 

Predators:  The natural predators of the Tule Elk were the California Grizzly bear, the mountain lion and the coyote. In the Tule Elks pristine state it is noted that they were not preyed on by sufficiently large enough predators except the mountain lions which still would not have faired well in the open range that the elk preferred as habitat (McCullough, 1969).
 


Photo by Gary Ferrence
Tule Elk herd near the seashore in northern California.
Natural History: In the late 1700s and early 1800's when California was first settled by Europeans there are many accounts of the herds of "deer" and the majesty of the scenes that were documented in California's early history.  Nevertheless, along with the gold rush came settlers who slowly started to strip away the Tule Elks native habitat for agricultural use. 

Moreover the fur trade and the need for meat gripped many newcomers and hunting and poaching became very popular.  The Tule Elks grand population of half a million dwindled to what is rumored as two surviving members, one male and one female.  But through research it has shown that more than just 2 adults remained. In all likelihood it is estimated that in 1895, 28  individuals remained after only 20 years of poaching (McCullough,1996).

Through the protection of one wealthy landowner near Bakersfield the Tule Elk did not go extinct.  Now it is estimated that the population is from 2,000-2,700 elk (McCullough, 1996).  This come back has occurred because of protective legislation passed by the State of California in the 1970's.  In addition, a Tule Elk State Reserve, near Bakersfield, formerly the Tupman Reserve was established in 1932 to provide a permanent habitat for the elk.   In the 1970s the total population numbered about 500 animals with 3 herds, today there are 22 herds with 2,700 head.  As soon as tighter regulation came into existence protecting the Tule Elk from their biggest danger, human kind, they thrived (McCullough, 1996).

Approximate Decline in the Distribution of Tule Elk with Time

                                             McCullough, 1969

Mating: Rutting begins in the end of July and the beginning of August.  The bulls usually live most of their lives separate from the females and calves, except during the rutting season when one dominant bull controls a harem or a large group of females and calves (McCullough, 1969).  This time of year is a very active period for the Tule Elk, the males fighting for dominance, and the females as well fight for status within the harem (McCullough, 1969).  After an average of 250 day-gestation period the cows give birth between May and June of the next year.
 
Probable Spread of Elk in Western North America based on early Records of Cervus elaphus nelsoni

                                                                           McCullough, 1969

Evolution:   During the Pleistocene period Cervus elaphus the ancestor of the Tule Elk and the other North American elk, migrated over the Bering Straits land bridge and have evolved slowly to todays sub-species of elk.  The descendents of Cervus elaphus have migrated all the way to the northern edge of Mexico (McCullough, 1969).  As I mentioned above the Tule Elk are considered to be a sub-species because they are "genetically compatible [to the european red deer] and have not evolved specific isolating mechanisms despite separation,"  since the elk and deer have copulated in captivity, and hybridization has occurred under those circumstances(McCullough,1969).  The nearest relatives to the Tule elk are the Rocky Mountain elk (Cervus elaphus nelsoni), and the Roosevelt elk (Cervus elaphus roosevelti).   It is said that Cervus elaphus nannodes and Cervus elaphus roosevelti show the most variation and so it is believed that they were offshoots from Cervus elaphus nelsoni, which shows more general characteristics between the two.  Also, as the above distribution shows it demonstrates the physical separation between the three subspecies as they migrated southwest and northwest over time. 

Additional Information: During the Tule elks pristine population size and when the Native Americans had not had not been forced off their lands, they used the Tule elk in a variety of ways.  The antlers were used and bones were used for tools and some jewelry, and the hides were used for clothes, while the meat of the animal was used for food.  The Tule elk provided a lot for the Native Americans who lived in their habitat, although the elk were not the mainstay of their diet (California Fish and Game Department).

Bibliography

California Fish and Game Department, The Elk of California. publication year unknown. Video cassette. 

Ferrence, G. The Homepage of Gary Ferrence. On-Line Available@
http://iup.edu/~ferenc/nann_elk.htm - Accessed on 11/21/2000

McCullough, D.R., J.D. Ballou and J.K. Fischer. 1996. "From bootleneck to  metapopulation: recovery of the tule elk in California." pp. 375-410.
in D. McCullough, ed. Metapopulations and wildlife conservaton. Washington, D.C.:  sland Press.

McCullough, D.R. 1969. The tule elk, its history, behavior, and ecology
University of California Press.

Schinske, Marian. "The tule elk to roam huge range in park." On-Line Available @  http://www.ptreyeslight.com/stories/oct30/elk.html - Accessed 11/20/2000
 
Welcome to the Environmental Studies Area of CSU Bakersfield. Tule Elk, Cervus nannodes. On-Line Available @
 http://www.csubak.edu/FACT/TuleElk.html - Accessed on 11/20/2000
 

Tule Elk of California

Habitat

Natural History

Evolution

Bibliography

send comments to  bholzman@sfsu.edu

 Geog 316 Homepage        Back to Geography Homepage      Back to SFSU Homepage