Elk hunting is a big deal in Colorado, and while many hunters are primarily interested in harvesting an elk for its meat, some hunters are after a trophy bull. Trophy elk are scored based on how large their antlers are and how many “points” or tines they have on each. But if humans had been hunting for trophy elk 25 million years ago or so, they would have been after the animal with the largest tusks, not antlers.
Elk are members of the deer family, and while modern male deer are noted for their antlers, prehistoric deer lacked antlers, but had tusks instead. Tusks are technically teeth (usually canine teeth), but are distinctive in that they grow continuously and protrude from the mouth. Today’s elk still bear remnants of their toothy past. Partially hidden in the upper jaw of both male and female elk are vestigial tusks, more commonly known as “ivories.”
An elk’s ivories are actually canine teeth. They are not large– less than an inch of the tooth is exposed in an adult elk– and they aren’t used in chewing. There is no corresponding tooth on the lower jaw for them to make contact with, but they do wear down some over time. While some elk ivories are pearly white, others are stained deep brown by tannins in the plants the elk eats and digestive juices. (Elk aren’t known to use Crest Whitestrips®.)
The term “ivory” technically refers to animal tusk material used in art or craft. Humans have used elk ivories to make jewelry and decorate other goods for centuries. Among many Native American tribes, ivories were used to adorn women’s dresses and were a symbol of prosperity.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s elk ivory became very fashionable and the teeth were used to decorate watch fobs, the short chains attached to pocket watches. At that time these watch fobs were an unofficial symbol of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks (B.P.O.E.), a fraternal order and social club still active today and commonly known at “the Elks.” But elk ivory’s popularity led to a spike in prices for the teeth, which in turn created an elk poaching problem. In 1907, in an effort to stop the poaching, the B.P.O.E spoke out against the use of elk ivories for jewelry and helped establish the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming.
While humans use elk ivories for adornment, elk use them in a manner that recalls a time when these teeth were much more impressive– they use them to threaten their rivals. An angry elk will sometimes curl its upper lip in a “sneer display” that reveals its vestigial tusks.
It is thought that as ancient deer evolved antlers, they lost their tusks. Only a handful of modern species of deer and deer-relatives still bear prominent tusks. Chinese water deer, muntjacs, and tufted deer, are all relatively small species that live in Asia and still have tusks. These species generally lack antlers. With their diminutive size, big brown eyes and large fang-like tusks, these deer almost look made-up, like Bambi masquerading as a vampire for Halloween.
Scientists are not entirely sure if any of the prehistoric deer that moved into North America from Asia many millions of years ago had tusks. Most of the fossil remains that paleontologists have found so far are incomplete. According to Dr. Darrin Pagnac, a paleontologist at the South Dakota School of Mines who studies ancient grasslands and the herbivores that grazed on them, “The earliest ‘deer’ in North America is Eocoileus, from the late Miocene (7-5 million years ago). All we have of it is a partial antler and the back of the skull. No teeth, so we can’t tell if it had canines or not.”
Whether or not any tusked deer ever roamed the plains of North America, elk ivories are a reminder of ancient times, when the wildlife on our continent looked very different than it does today. Once upon a time prehistoric cheetahs and camels roamed here. Giant sloths, weighing a ton, browsed on leaves and the giant beaver, who was over six feet long, presumably cut down really big trees. As magnificent as elk and Colorado’s other wildlife is today, the creatures of the past may have been even more impressive.
This article first appeared in the November 21, 2015 issue of the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.