|San Francisco State University
Department of Geography
Geography 316: Biogeography
The Biogeography of the Tule Elk (Cervus elaphus
Photo by Gary Ferrence
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).
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).
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
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).
California Fish and Game Department, The Elk of California. publication year unknown. Video cassette.
Ferrence, G. The Homepage of Gary Ferrence. On-Line Available@
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.
McCullough, D.R. 1969. The tule elk, its history, behavior, and
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
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