Quelques Elk: Part 2

It is mating season, and the bulls that we met last time have harems of from 5-30 females each.

The one in the right foreground below had 26 females!:

The male guards them day and night, because younger ‘periphery bulls’ lurk nearby, hoping to impregnate any female that strays from the group.

The young spikes also have to be watched, just in case they get any ideas. If the seigneur perceives a threat to his sovereignty he stretches his neck out and curves his head back so his antlers touch his spine.

And other threats lurk. This periphery bull wandered away, and when I looked at my distant photos I noticed for the first time that he was not alone:

The watcher is certainly a canid, (confirmed by my guide), and probably a wolf, (though it could be a coyote). Since I never did see wolves I am going to claim this as a wolf-sighting! Elk is the preferred food of wolves in the Tetons, and they can tackle both calves, and older or weaker adults.

Bull elk make eerie calls during mating season, known as bugling. Listen here:

The result of these fall liaisons will be calves in late May to mid-June. This calf is now four months old, browsing with its mother.

When her belly is full, she lies down to digest:

They may look stiff-legged, but those hind legs can be used to scratch behind the ear:

As winter closes in, they drift southwards.

Traditionally, the Jackson herd of about 11,000 animals would have moved from the Grand Tetons to lower elevations further south. Now their way is blocked by the town of Jackson at the southern end of the valley, so to prevent winter starvation the National Elk Refuge was created over 100 years ago, in 1912. Controversially, they are given supplemental food during the winter. The migration routes for the Greater Yellowstone elk herds can be seen below: the largest magenta blob, bottom center, is the Refuge.

I am proud to live in a country that once thought to create a National Elk Refuge. Long may we continue to value such places.

Quelques Elk*: Part 1

My guide in the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone was the wonderfully well-informed wildlife biologist Mark Byall of EcoTour Adventures. He was a constant source of fascinating information, and never ever boring. Thanks Mark. And Gloria and Rich (you know who you are).

The North American range of the elk is much more limited than it once was, (and Maine has never been their home), so this was my first chance to see elk.

They’re huge! A bull elk, Cervus elaphus nelsoni, can weigh over 1100 lbs and stand up to 5 ft at the shoulder (I am 5ft 3″). The most striking thing about them is of course their antlers. This one has five points on each antler:

and this one, confronting a potential rival, has six:

They don’t reach their maximum size for 9 1/2 years or so, and the record-holder had 14 points on each side. But most mature bulls are six-pointers, like my second photo above, and the one in this video, far off on a ridge and taken by Mark Byall through his spotting scope with his iPhone:

We will meet this bull again next time.

Young bulls are called spikes, for obvious reasons:

Look closely at his spikes:

They push out of the pedicles, and initially they are covered in a velvety membrane. He still has some attached to the tips of his miniature antlers. The velvet has a blood supply, and helps the antlers grow. Indeed, at this stage they will bleed if they are damaged.

This wonderful time-lapse video shows how antlers grow (it is a white-tailed deer, but the process is the same for elk, moose, or any antlered species):

They rub the velvet off on a nearby tree, leaving a scrape behind:

elk scrape

After the mating season is over, they drop their antlers. This video shows an elk just after he has lost his antlers. I suppose it feels like losing a tooth (Is there an antler fairy, I wonder?). He still behaves like the alpha male, and at the end of the video you can see it feels itchy and strange to him.

This arch in the town square in Jackson, Wyoming is made entirely of natural elk drops:

Jackson Hole’s Elk Antler Arch Tradition

In Part 2 I will introduce you to the rest of the family, and an unexpected visitor.

* My title is grammatically justifiable since ‘elk’ can be plural as well as singular! ‘Quelques’ is the plural of the French for ‘some’ and can be pronounced [kelk] or [kelk-uhz]. And you try finding another rhyme for ‘elk’. The only other one is ‘whelk’.

Assassins await

[I’m in Yellowstone, looking for wolves, and on Sunday when I usually send you a post I will be in a Wifi-free zone, so I’ve pulled out a blog I composed earlier this year and stock-piled. If I see wolves, you will of course hear all about it in the fullness of time.]

It was a dreary cold gray day on the last day of May, even the birds had slept in, so I looked more closely at the understory. The alder bushes were garlanded with iridescent alder beetles:

and on a lower leaf, an orderly matrix of tiny cylinders

with a halo of spikes like the crowns on miniature Statues of Liberty:

The spider that is eyeing them is either curious or hungry, but she is not the mother of these eggs. They are the eggs of an assassin bug, and this (a hundred feet away down by the brook) is roughly what they will grow up to be: a Pale Green Assassin Bug, Zelus luridus *, lurking on the flower spike of a False Hellebore.

Their front legs are coated with a sticky substance that helps them trap their prey.

He was lying in wait for an unwary mosquito or blackfly, or even this 3/8″ Band-winged Crane Fly, Epiphragma fasciapenne, sitting on a neighboring leaf:

Its intricate wings are too small to catch the eye in the field, but that’s why I take photos.

I watched the eggs for several weeks, and nothing seemed to change. Here they are three months later. It looks to me as though some have hatched, such as the ones at top right, but is hard to be certain.

*The eggs may be from a different species of assassin bug, I can’t be that precise.

Do Painted Turtles have teeth?

Painted turtles, Chrysemys picta, are perhaps the most-eye-catching creatures on my pond. They’re not rare: this spring there were eight on a log, basking:

One got wedged in a rotted tree stump. I was all ready to rescue it next day, but it managed to extricate itself.

There were three on a fallen tree some weeks later.

Two dived off when they saw my kayak but the smallest and youngest (and thus the most rash and least intimidated) let me get very close, so I can show you some details.

They have beautiful eyes,

with top and bottom eyelids, both closed in the next photo:

They don’t have teeth, but they do have ‘tomiodonts’ (my word of the week). Look at the center of the upper lip in the next two photos:

There are two bicuspid tooth-like things, with a notch in between.

Despite appearances, these are not teeth. Turtles have horny beaks made of keratin (think fingernails) that they use to grasp and crush food, and many species have a notch in the upper beak, flanked by two or even three tooth like tomiodonts. Their function is rather mysterious. Three explanations have been advanced. First, and most obviously, they may be useful in feeding, especially in immobilizing prey. Second, the fact that they are typically somewhat larger in males supports the idea that they may be used to immobilize the hapless females during mating. And third, they may be hangovers from some much much earlier ancestral species, and were perhaps just “spandrels”, in the sense of Stephen Jay Gould, by-products of some other evolutionarily-favored development.

And a parting wave goodbye!

PS If you’d like to know more, read Moldowan et al 2015. He was bitten by one, and it drew blood, so they are effective tools/weapons.