By Jim Knox
Wildly Successful: The North American Moose
“Can we pet him, Daddy?” my young daughters asked in near unison at the sight of the giant creature some yards away.
“No girls. We’ll just watch him safely from here,” I responded in a hush so as not to startle the object of our amazement.
Along with a growing caravan of onlookers, we sat quietly a few car lengths behind the huge animal, with the driver’s window cracked open, observing its every move. When the mountain breeze in the notch shifted, we could hear it munching on the undergrowth along the western shoulder of the ascending road.
We were treated to a sight of the wild north country. We took in the enormous creature before us. It stood on four impossibly long legs, its blackish-brown barrel-shaped body dominating our field on view. With palm-like antlers crowning its head more than seven feet above the ground, we beheld New England’s largest land mammal.
The North American Moose, Alces alces, is the largest living deer in the world, and one impressive creature. The young bull we observed was enormous yet not as massive as he would grow in his prime. His Alaskan cousins grew even larger. Reaching up to 10 feet in length, 7.9 feet at the shoulder, and 1808 pounds in weight, the North American Moose is a beast!
Ranging from Alaska, Canada, the northern tier states, and New England—including Connecticut—the moose is a creature of the boreal, spruce, and hardwood forests of the great north. With its slightly smaller kin, the Eurasian Moose—known as elk—inhabiting Scandanavia, the Baltic states, Poland, Russia, and Kazakhstan, the moose inhabits the higher latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere.
More than just behemoths, moose are superbly adapted creatures with a fine-tuned array of traits suited for their habitats. Their massive hooves approach six inches in length and aid the animals in displacing their weight across a variety of ground cover. Likewise, they double nicely as paddles when the moose takes to water. Additionally, the moose possesses hollow hairs which both insulate it in conditions down to 50 below zero and buoy it in water when it swims. The moose is highly aquatic—a fact that aids in cooling its massive body during the brief but warm summers in the northern latitudes. Rounding out its complement of aquatic adaptations the moose is capable of swimming more than 20 feet below the water’s surface and remaining submerged for more than 30 seconds.
With an enormous muzzle housing a huge and sensitive nose, the moose possesses, not only a keen sense of smell, but also an expansive nasal cavity which warms the frigid winter air before it hits its lungs. Lacking a nose pad like White-tailed deer, the moose’s nose is hair covered to guard against frostbite.
It’s extremely long legs aid it in traversing uneven ground and in grazing on aquatic vegetation in shallow water. It is this new aquatic growth in particular that provides the cows with essential nutrition, enabling them to produce milk for hungry calves which can grow an astonishing 2-5 pounds per day!
While they differ in shape from the twig-like (dendritic) antlers of their smaller cousins, the antlers of moose are palm-like (palmate) and much larger. The record antler spread for an Alaskan bull topped 6 feet across! Yet the moose is far more than a list of mammalian superlatives.
As a key recycler of forest nutrients, these enormous deer are essential in converting plant energy and returning it to the plant communities of the forest though their droppings along with fertilized seeds. Similarly, the moose’s grazing habits stimulate new growth, aiding forest regeneration.
Yet despite all of these species and ecosystem adaptations, the moose faces many challenges in the 21st century. As a creature adapted to the extreme cold of high latitudes and altitudes, the moose is especially sensitive to environmental change. Warming temperatures and higher humidity throughout it’s range have resulted in range overlap with White-tailed deer and susceptibility to the brain worm parasite, Parelaphostrongylus tenuis. Additionally, with this temperature change comes mild winters which lead to greater survival of winter ticks. This in turn leads to massive infestations of the parasites of up to 75,000 ticks on a single moose! With an infestation of such magnitude, a moose can lose gallons of blood to the parasites, leading to anemia, and even loss of life.
While the moose faces new obstacles, like all of nature’s creatures, it is adaptable and behaviorally programmed to survive. In addition, field biologists in Minnesota, New Hampshire, and other range states are researching novel forestry techniques and new conservation practices which encourage more evenly distributed population densities—protecting the moose from parasite predation. While the north country needs the moose, the moose needs a boost. Specialists like the moose may benefit from the helping hand of science. Afterall, even a giant can use a little help now and again.
Jim Knox serves as the Curator of Education for Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo and as a Science Adviser for The Bruce Museum. A member of The Explorers Club, Jim enjoys sharing his passion for wildlife conservation with audiences throughout Connecticut and beyond.