A group of KSS field instructors and I visited Rocky Mountain National Park recently to witness the yearly elk rut for ourselves. Much like people the male elk do everything they can to impress the ladies. Male elk (bucks) who do so with Dicaprian skill can build harems (groups of ladies) of over 30. These lady elk (cows) are drawn to intimidating racks of antlers, loud bugling (elk yelling), impressive muscles, and passionate confessions of love aboard glamorous boats.
We had the good fortune of observing over a couple of hours one male elk with an impressive rack—seven points—build his harem from 28 to 29, then back to 28, and then up to 31. Elk are prone to drama, if you didn’t know. At one point he swung his horns into a nearby pine tree’s branches to intimidate his competitors, of which there were several out in the open fields near Bear Lake. Soon after he acquired his 31st companion he decided to take a seat and rest while a pair of other males fought a few hundred yards away. It was an impressive sight and well worth the long drive from Summit County to Rocky Mountain National Park.
I’ve learned much about the wonders of biology in the past few months at Keystone Science School. I now know that some arctic fish can produce their own antifreeze, and that some bacteria breathe iron, and that trees can share nutrients through fungal connections. And now that I’ve seen the dramatic dating rituals of elk first hand, I’m feeling relieved to be a human.