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It's All in the Teeth

The science of aging elk is based on tooth development and wear. Like humans, elk replace their "baby teeth" with permanent teeth at a relatively set rate. As surely as a 6-year-old child will soon get her two front teeth, and 18-month-old elk will have its central two permanent incisors. By the time an elk is 3 1/2 years old, all permanent teeth are in. At this stage, estimating age is based largely on the rate of tooth wear. Diet and soil types may accelerate tooth wear, but generally, estimating the age of adult elk is straight-forward through age 3 1/2. In animals 4 1/2 years and older, estimating age by tooth wear is less reliable.

Tooth Identification Basics
Elk basically have two groups of teeth. The front teeth, or incisors, are used for collecting food. The back teeth or cheek teeth - molars and premolars - are used to chew and grind food. Between the incisors and molars is an open space along the jaw that has no teeth. (Note: In all photos, black line indicates the gum line.)
Your basic elk jaw. Incisors in the front, premolars and molars in the back, and a big space between.

Front Teeth (Incisors): These are the front teeth of an elk jaw. When an elk is 15-18 months old, the central two incisors are replaced. The rest of the front teeth - lateral incisors and canine teeth are replaced during the second and third year of life. Unlike horses, elk do not have upper incisors.

Cheek Teeth

Premolars: The first three teeth on each side of the jaw are called premolars. Elk grow two sets of premolars. The first set appear in calves and last until the animal is about 2 1/2years old, when permanent adult premolars push out the baby premolar teeth. An important characteristic of the first set of premolars is that the third premolar has three crowns or cusps. When permanent teeth come, all premolars have just two cusps.

Molars: The fourth, fifth, and sixth cheek teeth are the molars. Elk grow one set of molars. Generally, six-month-old elk have only one molar when they enter the fall hunting season. Therefore, six-month-old animals usually have only four cheek teeth. By 1 1/2years of age - the second fall - the second and third molar have erupted through the gum, though the last cusp of the third molar may still be below the gum line. All six molars and premolars are fully erupted by 3 1/2 years. To determine the age of animals in older age classes we need to look more closely at tooth wear.

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