Bull elk along the Gallatin River
Unlike other members of the deer family, elk have a tooth on each side of their front upper jaw. These special teeth are located similarly to the upper fangs or canine teeth of dogs and are properly called "canine" teeth.
Other names include: Ivory teeth, eye, teeth, tusks, whistlers, elk teeth, bugler teeth, wapiti teeth, forbs
Information Bulletin from October 1967, originally written by Kenneth R Greer
Hunters often leave an elk's head in the hills when they must pack out their meat. However, most elk hunters remove the canine teeth and frequently show them to personnel at a checking station. It has been found that this method is quite reliable, and from the canine teeth, an age may be assigned to the particular animal. These ages of animals harvested are important for interpreting the age structure of males and females in a herd and the survival, growth and longevity of various age classes.
The Fish and Game Department requires several types of information to have knowledge about
various big game herds. This information is required by biologists to formulate annual management
programs to regulate a herd. Under certain circumstances, some information must be obtained by
alternate methods. Such is the case with these canine teeth! While the lower jaw is preferred, for
examination, to reveal the age of an elk, it is frequently not available.
Deciduous upper canine teeth appear in elk calves about a month after birth. These teeth will be replaced later by larger, permanent teeth. These small temporary teeth are almost identical in size and shape in both male and female calves. They are quite small compared to permanent teeth——about 1/20 of the size of adult male and 1\10 the size of adult female permanent canines. The small deciduous teeth, retained for about a year, are replaced in June or July when the crowns of permanent canine teeth appear. Nearly a year is required for exposure of approximately half of the crown. Root extremities are the last part to develop and the tooth is completely formed between the second and third years.
The formation, development, and wear of these canine teeth are slightly more advanced in the females than in males. It is quite easy to recognize the characteristic size and shape between the male and female permanent canine teeth. Although these upper canine teeth do not have an opposing tooth to provide a wearing surface, they do reveal a great amount of wear. The surface wear of this lone tooth is due to contact with the tongue, as well as contact with the specialized muscle in the lower lip (distinguished by a circular patch of black hair).
Within a year after appearing through the gums, wear is noticeable on the canine tooth and continues throughout the animal's life. The complete crown is exposed in most elk 7 years-old or older. In elk over 15 years-old the root component often forms the wearing surface. Since development is in progress during the first and second year, the teeth are quite easy to distinguish. Many factors influence the variations found in individuals and canine teeth. Therefore, age designation after 3 years of age may vary by a year or two.