Elk versus Wapiti

Why does iNaturalist go back and forth between elk and wapati? I prefer elk as a common name and its more widely used than wapati. Regardless, I think its important to pick a name and stick with it rather than switch between names. The switching and use of an obscure common name for a charismatic, high visibility species could turn people away from the app.

Wapiti is the established and unambiguous name for Cervus canadensis although admittedly almost no one uses it in North America. I’ve never heard even an Elk biologist refer to the animal as a Wapiti. To most of us it’s an Elk or North American Elk. The name Elk is also applied to the moose Alces alces in the Old World, so there is some confusion if the name Elk is used without context.


You can set up Elk as the name for USA or other places it’s used more widely, but it’s Wapiti, great name, and elk = moose. Anyway you can use both when you type id in, they will both show up.

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From what I can tell on iNaturalist, “Wapati” is used for the common species name, while “elk” is used when describing subspecies (Cervus canadensis vs. Cervus canadensis canadensis), so I wouldn’t suggest the switching back-and-forth is anything arbitrary.

While I agree with you that “elk” is a much more commonly accepted name and wouldn’t be opposed to iNaturalist making a formal change, I also think the prediction that the use of “wapati” would “turn people away from the app” is a bit dire. All it took was a few seconds’ worth of research from my end the first time I saw the discrepancy to discover that they were the same thing.


Also, not sure why iNat or anyone would call it the American Elk when the scientific name is Cervus canadensis. Seems disrespectful to our neighbors to the north.



America is a pretty big continent, expending all the way to the North Pole. :)


NORTH America is a big continent.

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My favourite common name conflict is that Castor canadensis is set as “American Beaver” in the US and “Canadian Beaver” in Canada.


Even though Wapiti is the “official” name, I’ve never heard anyone using it anywhere in the US or Canada (the two relevant countries) unless they’re trying to make a point or be pedantic (along the lines of “you know, dinosaurs never really went extinct, birds are dinosaurs”), and my experience includes 49 of 50 states, with significant time in the northeast, the west, and up in Alaska, as well as most of the Canadian provinces, and in various native communities.

Some people recognize the name Wapiti, but most don’t. Everyone recognizes the name Elk though.

Even in grad school in wildlife biology courses and in discussion with people involved in game species management Elk was the preferred term and Wapiti never used.

It’s one of those, “This is what it is one paper,” situations that doesn’t really map into the real world well.

In my opinion it should be one of the options for a name in iNat, but not the default name as it’s really not used very much in the area the animals live.


The species also occurs in Asia though, where Wapiti is the preferred name. But to everyone in North America, it’s the American Elk.

iNat is a global database and just because we North Americans use a name one way doesn’t mean everyone else has to fall in line.

I feel that Elk (and the various similar names from the same root word) is the European name … they have the “copyright” on it and can use it for whatever animal they want (in this case Alces alces). We North Americans are just borrowing it.

We can set the name for US and Canada as you say, but there’re more English-speaking countries and I see wapiti (in English) used pretty often. It’s my own perspective though, it’s wapiti in Russian, but also iz’ubr’ is called a serious Manchurian wapiti in English, so it’s irrelevant to the topic.

Just to add to the fun, the “official” checklist to North American mammal names uses the following:

Cervus canadensis – Wapiti or Eastern Red Deer
Cervus elaphus (introduced) – Elk or Western Red Deer


There was a recent thread discussing this https://forum.inaturalist.org/t/which-common-name-to-use-the-most-common-or-taxonomically-accurate/5952/18 and the conclusion in that thread seems to have been that a common name that is unambiguous but not the one in common real-world linguistic use while another name is is just a non-latin scientific name, not a common name.

It’s ok. Our gift to you has been the Canada Goose (AKA cobra chicken)!
Seriously, I have heard Elk and Wapiti used interchangeably. As a youth, I knew it as Elk, and somewhere along the line Wapiti became used.
Common names are a nightmare - Anarta trifolii is referred to as the Nutmeg, a name I cannot stand. I’ve always known it as the Clover Cutworm.

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The notion no one in North America calls this a Wapiti is simply not true. As a Canadian this is the name I know the species by, and I’m certainly not alone here.


For international audiences, I personally think it is best to use wapiti and moose respectively to prevent confusion between the two, as elk in Eurasia refers to the moose, while as has been noted by others, the wapiti is more commonly called elk where it occurs in the English-speaking countries of the New World.

It’s somewhat a pity, as elk is a European word (and the name is similar in other European languages - Älg, Älch, Ælg, Alce, Eland, etc), which refers to the animal known as Alces alces. Therefore, in keeping with linguistic tradition, in international discourse it would be ideal to use the word elk when referring to the moose, just as we use the word chamois or impala for those respective animals.

Because the moose went extinct in the British islands early on, British settlers in the New World applied the word elk to the largest deer they saw, which happened to be the wapiti.

A similar case happened when Dutch settlers arrived in South Africa and called the largest antelope they encountered ‘eland’, which has become its main English name ever since.

My personal view is that in the case of moose/wapiti, it would be a shame to use solely American-derived words for both animals, that both range in the New and Old Worlds. Especially when the word elk has been applied to the moose since antiquity and which is immortalised in its scientific name.

There is no right or wrong way to call animals when considering the history and geography involved.

North Americans are free to call the wapiti ‘elk’, and Eurasians are free to call the moose ‘elk’. It would be up to us who are neither to use which one we prefer, and to use the appropriate term when speaking with a North American or Eurasian.


As long as users can find the species they mean to ID as (either wapiti or moose) by typing in Elk when uploading or searching, I don’t think it matters all that much which iNat designates as the preferred common name.

There’s also some pretty serious discussion of the names used in flags on the taxon page for anyone who really wants to dive in.

Just a note - in NA (Canada especially) Elk (Wapiti) and moose are two different animals. I gather that Elk is also used for Moose in other parts of the world. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elk

I guess I’m more concerned with the inconsistency than the name itself. On mobile, elk and wapati switch on my observations. One day its wapati, the next its elk. This is without me doing anything. On the desktop, a search for wapati doesn’t return any results. It seems like the naming conventions should be more consistent, especially for such a visible animal that will the first many people enter into the app.