Capturing a Bull Elk’s Scent-Checking Ritual

This is the third part in my series documenting my elk photography trip to Boxley Valley, Arkansas. After photographing two impressive bulls at my first stop (Photographing the Lead Bull Elk in Boxley Valley and Boxley Valley Barn and Elk: An Iconic Ozarks Scene) , I continued up the road to a turnout. There I found a small herd with cow elk, calves, and a young spike bull.

Soon I heard bugling and a large bull emerged from the trees, immediately beginning to scent check the cow elk. He came close, providing many great photo opportunities.

Arkansas Bull Elk Lip Curling
Arkansas Bull Elk Lip Curling

In the first image you can see the bull exhibiting “lip curling” behavior. He curls back his upper lip and inhales through his nostrils, allowing scents to reach his vomeronasal organ. This specialized organ detects pheromones and chemical signals that indicate the reproductive state of the cow elk.

Bull Elk Scenting Cows
Arkansas Bull Elk Scenting Cows

Bull elk rely heavily on their sense of smell to communicate with and assess cow elk. They can identify individual cow elk by their unique scents. When cow are in estrus, they give off the scent of estrogen, which the bulls detect. This bull was using lip curling to sample the air and determine if the cows were ready for breeding.

Bull Elk Scents to Find Ready Cows
Bull Elk Scents to Find Ready Cows

It was fascinating to observe this innate scent-checking ritual up close. I’m grateful to have captured these natural elk behaviors showing how bulls gather chemical information about cow elk. Stay tuned for more amazing elk encounters from my adventure in Arkansas’ Ozark Mountains!

Steve Creek, Wildlife Photographer

Image Information (First Image):

  • Date: 10/9/23
  • Time: 8:35 AM
  • Camera: Canon EOS R5
  • Lens: Canon RF 100-500 mm F4.5-7.1 L IS USM
  • ISO: 6400
  • Aperture: 7.1
  • Shutter: 1/800
  • Exp. Comp.: +0.7
  • Program: Manual

The next post in this series are images of a bull elk asserting dominance by chasing away rival bulls: Bull Elk Asserting Dominance