photo by Ghost Bear

Colorado’s elk are more vocal

If you’ve visited Rocky Mountain National Park between mid-September and mid-October, you’ve likely heard the elk bugling. It is kind of an impossible sound to miss. But why do they make this trumpeting sound that resonates through the park? A lot of it has to do with attracting a mate, but research conducted in Rocky Mountain National Park by Dr. Jennifer Clarke and students from the University of Northern Colorado (UNC) suggests elk bugles actually contain a lot of different information.

“Some bugles simply communicate that the bull is in the area with his harem. Others communicate to the cows that they are straying too far from the bull or otherwise displeasing him. Still others communicate to other bulls that they are too close to his harem, and that he is willing and able to defend his cows. In contrast, both types of aggressive calls have lower-pitched components in some parts of the call,” according to the Rocky Mountain National Park website.

Elk, which can number in the hundreds in the park during fall rutting season, also call with grunts, although they use this method a lot less frequently and researchers are not sure what function grunts play in elk speak.

Another interesting tidbit about the Rocky Mountain National Park elk is they appear to bugle more often, for longer periods of time, and form larger aggregations than elk counterparts in Yellowstone. It is likely because the Colorado elk don’t have to compete with predators like wolves and grizzly bears. Whatever the reason, it makes the park a great place to try to decode the messages in elk bugles, or to simply witness the spectacle.

—Becca Blond