wapiti (wŏpˈĭtē) [key], large North American deer, Cervus canadensis, closely related to the Old World red deer. It is commonly called elk in America although the name elk is used in Europe to refer to the moose. The wapiti is grayish brown, with a chestnut mane and yellowish rump patch and short tail. It is the largest of the deer family besides the moose; the male stands up to 5 ft (150 cm) at the shoulder and weighs up to 1,000 lb (450 kg). The male has antlers with 5 or more points on each branch and up to a 5-ft (150-cm) spread.
Once abundant throughout temperate North America, the wapiti was slaughtered for food, leather, and sport and for its canine teeth (used as charms). It was completely exterminated in the E United States and reduced in numbers elsewhere, but since the early 1900s small populations have been introduced in the East. Several varieties now exist, mostly under protection in national parks and wildlife refuges. Two of these are the Rocky Mountain elk, found from N Mexico to central Alberta and used in eastern restoration efforts, and the Roosevelt, or Olympic, elk, found in forests of the Pacific coastal belt from British Columbia to N California.
Related to the wapiti is the dwarf, or tule elk, C. nannodes, a small, light-colored deer of E California. The Old World red deer, C. elaphus, is smaller than the wapiti; males stand about 4 ft (120 cm) at the shoulder and have antlers up to 4 ft (120 cm) long. Its coat is reddish brown. It is found in wooded areas throughout the cold and temperate portions of Eurasia and in N Africa. Several other species of the genus Cervus are found in Asia. The sambar, C. unicolor, is a large brown deer of SE Asia.
Members of the genus Cervus and other deer are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Mammalia, order Artiodactyla, family Cervidae.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.