Ask The Biologist

All In the Family

All In the Family

By Bob Humphrey

How deer, elk, moose and caribou are related, at least according to biologists.

QUESTION: Are elk a subspecies of deer or a separate species? Are elk related to domestic cattle? To moose? Why are they called bulls, cows and calves while deer are bucks, does and fawns?

ANSWER: I should be able to answer the first two questions fairly easily. The last one might be a little tougher.

Taxonomically, deer, elk, moose and caribou are in the Class Mammalia, which includes all mammals. They are then segregated into the Order Artiodactyla, which contains all the even-toed ungulates, including sheep, bison, pigs and, yes, cows — so they are related at this level.

However, they are further separated into the Family Cervidae, the deer family. Within this family are four Genera: Alces (moose), Cervus (elk and red deer), Rangifer (caribou) and Odocoileus (deer). So far, so good, but this is where things start to get a little confusing.

The moose is North America’s largest member of the deer family and hard to confuse with anything else, at least on this side of the Atlantic. In Eurasia, this species is referred to as an elk, not to be confused with the North American elk or wapiti. To make things even more confusing, taxonomists consider our North American elk and the red deer of Europe and Asia (which has also been transplanted to South American and New Zealand) to be the same species, despite the fact that they look, act and sound quite different, and occupy entirely different continents.

As to why the sexes and ages have different names, there are several possible reasons.

In some cases it’s geographical. In Canada, male caribou are called bulls but Europeans refer to male reindeer (which are the same genus) as stags. In North America, female elk are called cows and males called bulls. Elsewhere, female red deer are called hinds and males called stags. Back home, the term “stag” is sometimes attributed to a buck deer that, as the result of some type of injury and malady, retains its antlers in velvet indefinitely.

And I don’t know the origin of the terms buck and doe, but I do know that buckskins were once a very important trade item and their value was approximately that of a dollar, which is how the term “buck” became ascribed to the dollar bill.

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Copyright 2017 by Buckmasters, Ltd.

Copyright 2017 by Buckmasters, Ltd