Here’s the Finnish mammal

September 14, 2014 • 9:35 am

by Matthew Cobb

Sophie Scott’s mystery mammal she spotted in a Finnish birch forest was, as many either saw or guessed, an elk, which was hiding behind a tree in the background of her photo. Elk is another name for moose (and vice versa) – their Latin name is Alces alces, and they are the largest extant member of the deer family.

They are not the same species or even genus as caribou/reindeer (Rangifer tarandus), which are also large deer, but which do not have the distinctive palmate antlers of the moose/elk.


The most famous elk is the extinct Giant Irish Elk, which used to roam across much of northern Europe before disappearing as the ice retreated and our ancestors moved north to hunt. Other explanations of their extinction are available (I know, we posted this a couple of years back):


We are lucky enough to have an Irish Elk skull and antlers on display in the foyer of the Michael Smith Building where I work at the University of Manchester. This cartoon appears on the explanatory panel along with some more serious scientific data.

21 thoughts on “Here’s the Finnish mammal

  1. The animal known in north America as an elk or in Wapiti (mostly in Canada, I think) is Cervus canadensis. The moose is Alces alces (which spell check wants to change to laces). I guess another case where we have to be careful about common names.

      1. Yes- in N. America, moose and elk are two different creatures. Moose are much bigger, around the size of the old Irish Elk.

  2. In Canada the moose (Alces alces) and elk (or Wapiti) (Cervus canadensis) are distinct species. Perhaps this is simply a difference in the use of the common names in North America and Europe?

    1. “Moose” is älg in Sweden, so I would assume “elk” is a mistaken derivative or vice versa.

      While we are at it, “reindeer” is ren, and “roe [deer]” is rådjur.*

      *Which is funny in swedish:
      – I guess Sami is the root for ren, because ren is also ‘clean’ in swedish.

      – And rå means ‘raw’ (while djur means ‘animal’). Yes, I prefer my live roe rå please. Else it would be terribly confusing.

    2. At the time when germanic vocabulary started colonising the British isles there weren’t any Alces extant there, so the name probably got attached to Cervus elaphus (Red Deer) over a thousand years ago: too late now to call it a mistake, I would have thought!
      De facto, ‘elk’ is the English word for ‘honking big cervid’ (consistently applied to Alces, Megaceros and, at least historically and transatlantically, the largest Cervus) while ‘deer’ used to just means ‘beast’ (e.g. =Tier in German). Moose and Wapiti are native American loan-words that fit within the semantic category of ‘elk’.

    1. The Irish Elk, Megaloceros giganteus was not an an elk (of either the Alces or the Cervus variety) but more closely related to modern fallow deer Dama dama. It certainly was Irish, though, as many skeletons have been found in bogs there. Its distribution was not limited to Ireland however, so a good case could be made for calling it something else.

  3. I am reminded of the time in the summer of 1976 that my wife and I ate at the Elk restaurant in Nyhavn, Copenhagen. I believe that my wife had the elk, and I had a bird that the waiter didn’t know the English name for. It was good, and I supposed it to be something like a quail or grouse.

  4. Jerry, with all due respect, moose and elk are NOT the same animal. Moose have a drooping muzzle, and a wide flat antler wtih prongs on the edges. Elk have a tapered muzzle, and thinner antler than moose. Moose are also much larger than elk. I see some others have also responded, with the scientific names as well.

    1. That’s not Jerry, that’s Matthew Cobb, who lives in England.

      And in England, as well as the rest of Europe, the species Alces alces is known as an elk (or some other language’s derivation of alces).

      Early English explorers apparently thought Cervus canadensis was too big to be a red deer (the closest equivalent animal that England has), so called them elk. Moose had been extinct in England for some time, so “elk” just meant “really big deer” to those who had never seen any on mainland Europe.

      The name Moose seems to have come from one or more native words for the animal.

      The upshot is, if you’re in Europe, moose and elk are the same animal. Sort of. If you know the word “moose”, then you should also know that “elk” means something different where the word “moose” is used.

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