Grandfather Mountain’s elk not only provide an exciting opportunity to see one of North America’s most majestic animals in its natural habitat, but also highlight an important conservation story about one of the area’s native species.
Elk populations once thrived in the High Country of North Carolina, with the animals lending their name to numerous towns and landmarks in the area, such as Banner Elk, Elk Park and Elk River Falls.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, populations of the eastern elk, a distinct subspecies of elk that inhabited the northern and eastern United States, had their numbers decimated due to overhunting and loss of habitat. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the eastern elk extinct in 1880.
Grandfather Mountain’s resident elk Merle and Watson were born in August 2017 at the farm of Tom Smith, an elk farmer in Salisbury, N.C. They arrived on Grandfather Mountain in December 2017, and they quickly started exploring and getting used to their new surroundings. See our elk in the Wildlife Habitats.
Merle and Watson are half-brothers and often act as such. Later in the year, when their antlers are fully grown, the two 700-pound cervids can be seen in their habitat engaging in some playful sparring. While the two elk share a lot in common, they each exhibit their own unique personality.
Merle is the more dominant of the two brothers, while Watson is more laid-back and calm. During rut, or the mating season for elk that lasts from October to December, guests are often able to hear the elk, especially Merle in particular, before they see them, as they emit a loud bugling sound. Bugling can have a variety of purposes, from alerting that a bull is in an area with his harem, to warning other bulls that they are too close.
While Merle is the louder of the two, Watson can be quite vocal as well. At feeding time each day, Watson is usually the first elk to greet his keepers at the fence and signals his excitement by making a chirping noise, a surprising sound to hear coming from such a large animal.
When it comes to feeding, Merle and Watson can be quite picky about what they eat. The habitat staff have presented a variety of appealing produce to the elk, but their favorite treats include bananas, bell peppers, persimmons and even horse treats, especially apple horse nuggets and the seasonal peppermint horse nugget. Check out our Amazon Wish List if you would like to send a gift to Merle and Watson!
One of the most common questions the park’s naturalists and keepers get asked is about Merle and Watson’s antlers. Antlers, which are made out of bone, are shed and regrown each year, a process that begins in April and ends in March when their antlers typically fall off. Elk antlers are one of the fastest-growing bones of any animal in the world and can grow as fast as an inch per day.
The entire time the antlers are growing, they are covered in a thick velvet-like material, which is soft to the touch and provides blood supply to the bone to help accelerate the growth. The elks’ antlers are sensitive during this time, and they are careful not to bump them on anything in their habitat. When fully grown, the antlers can weigh around 40 pounds. In early fall, the blood supply to the velvet will slowly diminish, and the velvet will begin to dry up. At this point, the elk will begin to rub off the velvet by rubbing their antlers on trees or other solid material, revealing the healthy bone underneath.
Grandfather Mountain had not previously housed elk but decided to bring back these former residents of the region for guests to learn about them and the important role they play in their ecosystem, which includes tilling up the soil beneath them with their antlers and hooves to help stimulate the growth of grasslands and the forests in which they live.
To learn more about elk, attend an Animal Encounter daily April-October.
Looking for a special gift? Adopt one of our elk.