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Episode 356: Massive Moose Returns

The magnificent moose (image from the Denali Education Centre)

The only extant member of the genus Alces, the Moose is the largest and heaviest deer in the world, a truly impressive species living in Boreal forest through Canada, Alaska, New England, New York State, the Baltic states, Poland, Kazakhstan and Russia. Unlike deer, moose do not form herds and instead roam as solitary animals, feasting on both aquatic and terrestrial vegetation. 

The very first of the Alces genus appears in the fossil record 2 million years ago in Europe. The most famous extinct member of this genus is the enormous Giant Moose, which once wandered Europe and likely traversed the long gone Bering land bridge to bring moose to what is now North America. 

Moose and their massive antlers: biology and adaptations for their life in the cold

Perhaps the most famous feature of moose are their huge antlers, an important signal of the age and reproductive quality of the male. The more symmetrical the antlers are, and the more ‘points’ or tips that they have, indicates a more desirable male. The ‘velvet’ growth which is seen covering antlers is actually a dense network of blood vessels that deliver essential nutrients for growth. In September, moose will begin rubbing this velvet off in a rather bloody display, as the antlers are finally finished growing. These antlers are also incredibly important for dominance displays, which are a common occurrence in the rutting season between September and October, when males fight for access to females. Once mating is complete, the males will shed their antlers, as these massive structures require a lot of energy to maintain. Other animals and will eat the dropped antlers as they are a great source of protein, and even moose are known to eat the shed velvet for the rich nutrients. 

A moose’s’ antlers during the shed (image from BioGraphic)

On top of their impressive antlers, moose have several other adaptations for their lifestyles in the cold boreal forest they call home. Their hooves have evolved into a shape that allows them to stride across soft snow. When the hoof comes down and hits the snow, the hoof will splay, spreading the weight of the animal and preventing the moose from sinking into the snow. Their large hooves are also perfect for clearing snow away for access to vital browse underneath. Moose have incredibly long front and back legs which can kick in any direction. One well aimed kick from a moose can kill a wolf, giving them some defense across the few predators large enough to take them down. Like so many animals living in the cold, the moose coat is well designed to trap heat, consisting of a top layer of long guard hairs and a wooly undercoat. The guard hairs in the top coat are hollow, with the air inside acting as both insulation and to help them stay afloat when swimming, as moose are powerful swimmers and will graze the bottom of lake and river beds for food. Their prehensile upper lip is perfectly designed for grasping vegetation and shoots from tough branches, allowing them to get hold of the more nutritious growing tips of trees and avoiding the unappealing woody twigs. 

A moose showcasing their impressive ability to swim (image from Glacier Guides)

Moose in the Modern World

Currently, the moose is fortunately listed as least concern by the IUCN red list, with an estimated 1.5 million moose in the world. However, like so many animals that rely on cold forest habitat, there is the ever looming threat of climate change that could force their populations into smaller and smaller areas. As habitats shift with changing temperatures, the ranges of parasites and diseases also shifts, putting moose at increased risk of disease. Already in some high density areas, moose are suffering increased incidences of disease such as brain worms, which are easily passed on from white tailed deer who are also forced into smaller and smaller habitats. With warmer winters come more ticks as they survive longer without the punishing cold that would normally kill them off. For moose this can lead to blood loss, anemia and a higher susceptibility to infections. 

Moose are hunted as game, but in general this is very monitored, and the money obtained through hunting permits goes back into habitat conservation for not just the moose, but any species living alongside them. It is in the best interests of forest conservancies to preserve moose populations, as they are economically important, attracting huge numbers of hunters and wildlife watchers. 

The Nature Conservancy, centred on Minnesota, aims to manage and improve moose habitat, ensuring they have plenty of good forage and good cover. A large part of this is to conduct controlled fires and timber clearing to keep the forest healthy and diverse. They also study the movements of moose by tagging them to study their habitat usage, and they use this data to inform the planning of housing and infrastructure developments. You can check out all the important forest maintenance work they do at Restoring Moose Habitat | The Nature Conservancy in Minnesota

The organization The Wolves and Moose of Isle Royale are conducting a long term, vital study into predator-prey dynamics on Isle Royale, an isolated lake in the middle of Lake Superior in the northern part of Wisconsin. This isolated island allows scientists to study the dynamics and moose and wolves almost in isolation, making it a great location for controlled experiments. They have made many essential discoveries in their time, including how wolves affect prey populations, how the health of prey populations is affected by inbreeding, determining the long term trends in air pollution by studying moose teeth, the interactions between ravens and wolves and the patterns of the daily lives of moose and wolves, and too many other studies to list here. This incredible body of research can be found at Welcome to The Wolves and Moose of Isle Royale | The Wolves and Moose of Isle Royale (isleroyalewolf.org), where you can learn about the history of this incredible project. 

The beautiful Isle Royale National Park, home to intensely studied populations of Moose and Wolves (image from the National Park Service)

Awesome Videos!


Berger, J. Swenson, J.E. and Persson I.L. (2001) ‘Recolonising carnivores and naive prey: conservation lessons from Pleistocene extinctions.’ Science

Dussex et al (2020) ‘Moose genomes reveal past glacial demography and the origin of modern lineages.’BMC Biology 

Escobar, L.E. Moen, R. Craft, M.E. and Vanderwaal, K.L. (2019) ‘Mapping parasite transmission risk from white-tailed deer to a declining moose population.’ European Journal of Wildlife Research

Hundertmark, K.J. and Bowyer, R.T. (2004) ‘Genetics, evolution and phylogeography of moose.’ 

Solberg, E.J. and Saether, B.E. (1993)’ Fluctuating asymmetry in the antlers of moose: does it signal male quality?’ PNAS

Telfer, E.S. and Kelsall, J.P. (1984) ‘Adaptation of some large North American mammals for survival in snow.’ Ecology 

Sokolov, V.E. and Chernova, O.F. (1987) ‘Morphology of the skin of moose.’ Swedish Wildlife Research

Wattles, D.W. and DeStefano, S. (2013) ‘Space use and movements of moose in Massachusetts: implications for conservation of large mammals in a fragmented environment.’ Alces


October 04, 2023
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