I was wondering if you could shed some light on a question that has bugged me for as long as I can remember.

I can never work out what an 'elk' is supposed to refer to. Alces alces is a moose, Rangifer tarandus is a reindeer, or caribou (although confusingly I have seen Alces alces called caribou once or twice...)

However, I've heard the name 'wapiti' tossed around quite a bit, and wikipedia tells me that this is Cervus canadensis, also called an elk. Other sources have told me that wapiti is another name for Rangifer tarandus, and 'elk' simply refers to Alces alces

Which is most common? When someone describes an 'elk' or a 'wapiti' or a 'caribou' which should I assume they are talking about??

Indeed this is a mess!

First off the easy one - Rangifer tarandus is the species commonly known as reindeer or caribou. Caribou is more commonly used in N America (except at Xmas I guess, "rudolph the red nosed caribou" doesn't have the same ring to it).

In the UK, the common name Elk refers to Alces alces which is known in the US and Canada as a moose. So the European elk and the N American moose are the same species although a number of different subspecies designations are sometimes used.

In N America the common name Elk is used to refer to the animal also known as a Wapiti which currently has the species name Cervus canadensis. I say currently because it was long thought that wapiti were a subspecies of the Eurasian red deer (Cervus elaphus). Current thinking based on genetic studies is (I think!) that C. elaphus and C. canadensis are distinct species, but it is certainly true that they can hybridise and that both have been moved around by humans extensively for meat and hunting. As such it is not uncommon to find "wapiti" type genetic signatures in European red deer populations (and probbaly vice versa). So in a nutshell...

reindeer=caribou = Rangifer tarandus

moose = (european) elk = Alces alces

wapiti = (N American) elk = Cervus candensis but may sometimes refer to C. elaphus, the red deer.

Last edited by Alistair Wilson (18th Dec 2011 17:06:20)

I'd suggest this shows you why scientists use 'scientific'/'latin' names as the lingua franca. ... so next time you are confused what species the people are refering to, ask them what the scientific name is... as each species has a unique name - as alistair so nicely explained!

agreed - although one side-effect of the rapid growth of molecular phylogenetics is that actually Latin names for some taxa are currently being changed at a rate that makes the common name more useful. That is to say each species still has a unique Latin name... but it may not be the same name as it had last year! In contrast my hunch (i.e. untested) is that common names, while showing more geographic variation, are actually more stable over time.