No attention was paid to the throng of hushed tourists, necks craned, peering through long telescopic camera lenses that lent them a somewhat comical air. We must have looked utterly ridiculous to the elk (Cervus canadensis), with our bright jackets clearly defying the basic principles of camouflage.
Also called wapiti, elk roam forests and forest edges, eating grasses, plants, leaves, and bark. They’re native to North America and eastern Asia, and are one of the largest land mammals in both regions. We’d visited Yellowstone National Park in the late autumn, just after the mating season, or the ‘rut’. Had we been there to witness the love (or lust) in the air, we’d have seen males being much more aggressive than normal, competing for mates. Bulls engage in what’s known as ‘bugling’, making loud shouts that can be heard miles away. The louder they are, the more attractive females find them, which is sometimes echoed in human society. Females are in addition are also attracted to the urine that the males spray all over themselves, which hopefully isn’t echoed. In some parts of Asia, elk antlers, and the soft velvety covering, are used in traditional medicine. Called 鹿茸 in Chinese, the velvet is thought to be good for the kidneys, bone marrow, tendons and bones, and essentially improve the general health and strength of the body.
Before extensive research, we had trouble distinguishing elk from mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus). Eventually we figured that although both have a creamy white rump patch, mule deer are smaller and have smoother coats, most prominently at the neck. They also have cuter, less droopy noses. Indigenous to western North America, mule deer consume a huge variety of plants- some 788 species, according to a study in 1973. Although often seen browsing for vegetation, they also eat lichen, beans, pods, nuts, berries, and mushrooms. Mule deer also have a distinct mating season, where males make good use of their antlers before they fall off in the winter. Like some ladies, does (female deer) can mate with more than one male. They carry their baby for 190 to 200 days, before giving birth in the spring, when it warms up a little. The first is often a single fawn, but in subsequent years litters tend to have two.
The day had only just begun, and there was the rest of Yellowstone National Park to explore. We tumbled back into the car, trundling along winding roads, watching thick pine forests, undulating meadows, and columns of geothermal steam in the distance roll past our windows. Eventually we slowed to a stop- it always meant that some wildlife was afoot when cars slowed and people’s heads emerged- to see a herd of bison establishing dominance by crossing the road in front of a whole fleet of cars. Four species of bison are now extinct, leaving two surviving species, the American bison (Bison bison), and the European bison (Bison bonasus). The American bison is found only in North America, and certainly very much so in Yellowstone. Although we usually spotted them grazing alone, they travel in herds of the same sex, except during the mating season at the end of summer. Wallowing is also a commonly seen behaviour, which we were happy to witness out our car window: bison like to roll around in shallow soil depressions, possibly to groom, scratch, or simply socialise. They’ve got quite the personality though. They’re huge, surly, shaggy, and unpredictably aggressive. These traits make them one of the most dangerous animals in the park, and visitors are repeatedly warned to stay away from them. Of course, there are also some who, despite their good intentions, bundled a baby bison that ‘looked cold’ into their car, leading to it having to be euthanized. A sad case which also provided further proof that ignorance can be a dangerous weapon to wield, even when it’s dulled by kindness.
There’s a huge range of wildlife to be spotted at Yellowstone, but given our short stay there, and the rain, we didn’t quite get to observe as many as we’d have liked. We did see a bear in passing- too far away to tell which species it was- and a little chipmunk, which ventured up to the edge of our little knot of hikers before scampering away behind the park ranger. Not too bad for a Yellowstone trip, particularly since a couple of elk decided to treat themselves to a session at the hot springs right in front of us.