From his great dark mane and daggered antlers to the weird, wild bugle he sings, a 318-kilogram (700-pound) bull elk during rutting season is quite the awe-inspiring beast. Two bulls going at it over mating rights demonstrates the real muscle behind the royal appearance and that iconic, unearthly scream. Just check out this video recently posted to Yellowstone National Park’s Twitter feed:

The footage – taken some years back, apparently, in the vicinity of Mammoth Hot Springs, a year-round elk hangout on Yellowstone’s ungulate-rich Northern Range – shows two bull elk locked in intense combat at night. As they lurch, stagger, and strain amid sagebrush, the prevailing soundtrack is the rattle of huge, gnashing antlers – and the occasional background bugle.

Second-largest deer in the world after moose, elk – also known by the indigenous Shawnee name wapiti, which means “white rump” – breed in Yellowstone between early September and mid-October. Mature bulls are especially riled up during the rut, spending much of their time trying to gather harems of cows and mate while also warding off rival males. Their large antlers, or “racks” – which in the Rocky Mountain elk of Yellowstone average about 14 kilograms (30 pounds) – are certainly formidable weapons, but as with many ungulates full-blown fights are comparably rare. Indeed, racks are also partly showpieces – visual signals of a bull’s physical condition – and more often than not just brandishing them is enough to intimidate competitors without any coming-to-blows.

A bull’s bugle is another signal of vitality, both to other males and to cows. It’s a strangled, sustained, far-traveling cry quite different from the shorter, husky roar issued by the stags of Eurasian red deer, the wapiti’s close, smaller relative. The red deer evolved primarily as a forest dweller, while the elk – though certainly adapting to woodlands in North America – is first and foremost a creature of more open country, where the higher-pitched bugle travels farther.

Actually, a bull elk’s bugle is two-toned, with a deeper-pitched component as well. A 2016 Journal of Experimental Biology analysis suggested that the lower-frequency component of the bugle (about 150 Hz) may be aimed at nearby bulls, while the high-pitched, overlaying whistle (up to 4,000 Hz or so) broadcasts the bugler’s presence long-distance. Bulls will respond to bugles near and far in kind, engaging in the shrieking back-and-forths that help define the fall soundscape in North American elk country.

Showing off a big rack and screeching away like a banshee (or, as it’s been aptly compared to, a Ringwraith), a dominant bull can certainly convince a lot of would-be rivals to steer clear. But when bulls of similar size (and similarly surging hormones) cross paths, their various intimidation displays may end up culminating in a battle, as with the Mammoth Hot Springs bulls featured in the Yellowstone video. As you can see, these fights tend to be locked-antler wrestling matches, basically, and may last quite awhile before one bull decides he’s had enough and hightails it – hopefully without getting speared in his escape.

Yellowstone tweeted out these battling bulls just a couple of days before a bowhunter was killed by an elk hundreds of miles to the west in the northern Coast Range of Oregon. As Zach Urness reports in the Salem Statesman-Journal, the 66-year-old man had shot the bull elk – a Roosevelt elk, a subspecies native to the heavy, wet coastal forests of the Pacific Northwest – but been unable to track it down before nightfall. The next morning, August 30, he and a companion found the wounded bull, which charged the hunter and fatally gored him in the neck. (Authorities later killed the bull elk and donated its meat to the local county jail.)

A fatal attack such as this – even provoked by an arrow – is unusual, but every year in North America people are chased by wapiti, typically when they intrude upon the ungulates’ personal space, and injuries aren’t uncommon. During the rut, bull elk can be quick to charge folks who disregard warnings and stray too close. Yellowstone advises visitors to stay at least 23 metres (25 yards) from elk anytime of year.

In 2018, a bull elk freshly off a rutting confrontation with another knocked a man to the ground at Mammoth Hot Springs. And about a year ago, a bull in Estes Park, Colorado, just outside Rocky Mountain National Park, shoved a woman down and repeatedly rammed her with his antlers. A man drove his truck in between to block the elk, which ended the attack – but not before the bull butted the vehicle as well.

And remember, antlers aren’t by any means the be-all, end-all elk weaponry you need to worry about: Cow elk rear up and strike with their front hooves – as do antlerless bulls – and will readily go after people they reckon are too close to their calves. Two separate attacks like this took place around Mammoth Hot Springs in 2018.

More than a few visitors to Yellowstone and other public lands in the mountains of western North America will enjoy the stirring symphony of bugling wapiti this fall; if they’re lucky, they might well see bulls going a few rounds. They just need to remember to leave plenty of breathing room between themselves and those antlered gladiators.

Top header image: Shutter Fotos, Flickr