"Every creature is better alive than dead,
men and moose and pine trees,
and he who understands this,
and he who understands it aright,
will rather preserve its life than destroy it."
Henry David Thoreau
Moose are tragicomic characters in Nature’s dance of life. While wolves and bears tend to run from humans, Moose are more likely to stand there, looking at you with that flat, seemingly indifferent stare, if they acknowledge your presence at all, apparently fearless, the thumbnail next to the entry "confidence" in the on-line dictionary. I believe there’s more at work here than meets the eye. In their own strange way, moose are cool, and their numbers in the Adirondacks, about 800 today, are on the rise, at about a 20% annual rate, though climate change may reverse that trend.
Moose, the largest member of the deer family, crossed the Bering Strait land bridge into North America about 10 to 15,000 years ago, a barely noticeable blink in the timeline of life on Earth, and at about the same time our CroMagnon ancestors came across with their wolf-dog hunting companions. Evolution itself is a blind architect, fated to perform modification only, never having that creator’s advantage of starting from scratch, with a blueprint unaffected by an existing structure. Moose speak to the imperfections of a process in which animals evolve in one ecosystem, and then expand into adjoining ecosystems presenting challenges for which they did not evolve, and are not prepared.
Moose are enormous, herbivorous ungulates, with large males and females weighing in at about 1,500 and 800 lbs. respectively. Alaskan moose are larger than new England and Eastern Canadian moose, which are in turn larger than moose found in the western U.S. There’s much to recommend the vegan diet, but one shortcoming is the relative lack of nutrition. As a result, adult moose have to consume five tons of vegetation per year, ranging from cedar and balsam fir branches, and the stems of deciduous trees and shrubs in winter, to the leaves and stems of willow, aspen and birch, as well as aquatic plants in summer. This means that moose spend about eight hours a day chewing on fresh vegetation, and another 8 hours ruminating, rechewing food brought up from the fore stomach, or rumen, one of four different chambers in the moose's stomach. Aquatic plants fill the sodium deficiency in moose diets, which is why we sometimes see them road side, licking the rock salt we use to melt winter ice.
This also means that the fates of moose and browse targets such as cedar and balsam fir are inexorably intertwined, such that a growing moose population may cause its own correction by over- browsing balsam fir, causing a collapse in the abundance of fir, followed by a collapse in the now starving moose population, whose increasing mortality rate makes the wolf’s efforts at survival much easier and less dangerous, as they can avoid the dangers of the hunt by scavenging dead moose, leading to an uptick in the pack’s numbers, and so on, as the circle of life rumbles on.
Bergmann’s rule describes how individuals within a species are somewhat larger in colder, more northerly latitudes than in milder latitudes, because natural selection works on the tendency for animals with a larger body mass to body surface area ratio, to be more effective at retaining heat, and therefore more likely to mature, breed and pass along that genetic advantage to their offspring. As a result of tens of thousands of years of this tendency, moose and wolves in Alaska are somewhat larger than their counterparts in Montana, Minnesota and Maine.
Mammal hides generally, and moose hides in particular, are so efficient at retaining heat, that a visitor to the Refuge, while watching our wolves running around in playful abandon, and wondering what possessed him to visit the Refuge during sub-zero temperatures, quipped that the wolves didn’t seem to know how cold it was. Even after shedding their winter coats, moose consider fifty degrees the optimal temperature. Being in the lake or bog gives them relief from the heat and biting insects, and because they can stand comfortably at depths where wolves would be quite literally dog paddling, relatively safe from attack.
Moose are solitary
creatures, and don’t generally herd
up the way other ungulates do. Bulls tend to live alone,
and in an
almost comical rebuke to
Intelligent Design, spend 25% of their annual energy input growing
massive antlers, starting in the Spring, using them during the brief
in Autumn, not only to contest mating rights with other bulls, but as
evidence for cows, sort of the moose equivalent of showing off a flashy
mansion, a clear indication of their strength and suitability as mates.
bulls become so exhausted by the rut, they become vulnerable to wolves,
quickly recognize weakness, injury and vulnerability.
Moose courtship is deserving of a romantic comedy. A hairy thin layer of "velvet" covers the antlers while they're growing, and when the antlers reach full size, which varies with age, the bulls rake their antlers through branches and roughage, scraping the velvet skin off the antlers, which causes the antlers to darken in color.
By mid August, mature bulls will begin to playfully spar with younger bulls, as a warmup for the Autumn rut. Generally speaking, neither young or mature bulls are injured during these sessions, which is not the case when mature bulls spar with each other. Some bulls are killed, or so severely weakened, they become easier prey for wolves and bears.
Courtship, whose purpose is for mature bulls to gather and defend a harem, begins when the bull gouges a trough out of the ground cover with their front hooves, and then proceeds to pee in the trough, and the pee could probably fill a gallon jug. The bull then stomps one of its front feet into the trough, to splash the pee over their bodies, sort of a moose cologne. During courtship, the bull may also pee on their own legs to further accentuate the odor. An analogy would be when you see one of those commercials where a woman sprays perfume into the air and then steps into the resulting cloud.
It gets better. Moose have a nose as sensitive as a bear or wolf, and when moose cows smell the urine, they'll approach and fight each other over which of them can roll in the urine trough. Bulls may engage in battle with other bulls, during the period when they're mating with members of their harem, but usually relative size sorts out which bull will dominate. I saw the attached Nova Scotia bull, who was ultimately scorned by the cow he was targeting, run at and drive off a smaller bull without any fighting.
After the rut and mating ends, bulls will gather and hang out together until later, as they begin dropping their antlers in December, they'll return to their solitary lifestyles, until the whole process begins anew the following autumn.
Cows are naturally very protective of their calves, and will drive away predators and other moose, the latter in response to protecting food sources. Ask any wolf who’s had his skull caved in by Mama Moose’s sharp and heavy hooves, when they got too aggressive with her calf. Like all ungulate calves, moose need protection as they’re only about 30 lbs. when born in May, bulking up to about 300 lbs. within six months to be prepared for the hardships of winter.
Ungulates tend to struggle more through a winter of deep snows, as their relatively heavy torsos and sharp hooves force them to pole through snow, while wolves not only have snowshoe-like paws, which enable them to distribute their weight effectively, allowing them to run on top of compacted snow, but share the burden of breaking through lighter, deeper snow by following in each other’s wakes, and taking turns leading the pack.
White tail deer have been in North America for 4 million years, and carry meningeal or "brain worm", giant liver fluke and the winter tick, parasites which deer are able to manage and live with. Moose sharing habitat with deer, pick up these parasites, and being relative newcomers to our neck of the woods, fare less well. Brainworm and liver flukes are passed to moose through a cycle involving deer droppings, snail infection and the ingestion of leaves contaminated by deer pellets or snails. Brainworm, which produce larvae on the surface of the white tail brain, work through the moose brain tissue, destroying the brain, and causing weakness, reduction of equilibrium, disorientation and often death in moose. Flukes are rarely fatal, but can work with other health issues to weaken moose and make them more vulnerable to wolves and other natural fates.
A white tail deer will pass through winter with up to 300 ticks, and have the ability to detect and remove most of the newly hatched seed ticks through licking and rubbing when the ticks climb aboard in autumn, often in clumps, from vegetation brushed by the deer. The ticks are aided in this boarding strategy by their ability to detect the carbon dioxide exhalation of approaching mammals, and the fact that excited ticks can quiver, cluster, shake and flip onto the unfortunate moose, sort of like dog fleas at their own disco. For some reason, moose either do not feel the ticks, until they have climbed up the torso and the female ticks begin biting and drawing blood, or they are less able to detect their presence. Ed Reed, a biologist with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, pointed out during a presentation on moose, that moose are not as effective at grooming as are white tailed deer, and their massive head and stubby neck make it difficult to stretch around and reach their hind quarters with their tongues. In addition, Ed pointed out that the Winter tick passes through three developmental stages while on the moose, each of which involves taking blood from the moose.
By January, an adult moose may be carrying anywhere from 10,000 to 80,000 ticks, and while an individual tick takes an insignificant amount of blood, moose can reach a tipping point where the ticks are removing a significant amount of the blood generated naturally by bone marrow and haematopoietic cells, leading to loss of energy. In addition, the itching caused by ticks and mites lead the moose to bite at their itchy coats, and vigorously rub their bodies incessantly against rough-barked trees, leading to coat loss and possibly hypothermia. These factors, when combined with the lower nutrition intake of moose in winter, which, following Bergmann’s rule, exposes the moose to possible starvation, threaten the moose’s life, making the stretch between mid-March and mid-May the most vulnerable period in an adult moose’s year.
Moose tend to be safe from wolf attack between the ages of sexual maturity, at about three or four, until they are eleven or twelve. The reason is that an adult moose is such a powerful and dangerous adversary, that naturally cautious wolves approach about 20 moose for each one they decide to attack. Bulls live about twelve to twenty years, while cows may last a few years longer.
Moose spend so much time eating that they’re not great wanderers, and may not move more than about forty miles from the area of their birth, a distance your average wolf pack may travel in a single day, during the course of exploring their territories for moose and other prey. Because wolves tend to defend huge territories, averaging about 200 to 400 square miles, an individual moose could spend its entire life within a given pack’s territory. Wolves concentrate their territory defense by spending more time patrolling their territory’s periphery, and may pass through any point on that periphery every two weeks or so.
Just as our visual acuity, and more precisely our ability to resolve color, is probably our most important sense when it comes to memory, it’s not too much to claim that while sharp eyesight and keen hearing are indispensable to wolves, to a large extent the world comes to wolves and other canids principally through their noses. After bears, wolves have the most efficient and sensitive noses in the mammal kingdom, and use that powerful information gathering tool, to read the olfactory record of the comings and goings of prey and poaching competitors like bears, coyotes, bobcats and other wolves. Talk about "unnatural selection", all dogs were forcibly bred out of wolves, the first "hunting dogs", between fifteen and thirty thousand years ago, according to archaeology, or about 130,00 years ago, according to DNA studies, which helps explain why your dog behaves so territorially, constantly sniffing and scent marking. Wolves may build olfactory memories of individual prey animals, and may approach the same moose many times over the course of its life, probing and testing to see if the moose has become more or less vulnerable than it was before.
But, alas, moose have much bigger problems in nature than living among wolves. Half of all moose develop arthritis by age ten, due to a combination of genetic predisposition and maternal malnutrition during pregnancy, and the fact that moose spend so much time standing and eating, supporting those large torsos on their legs. Cartilage in the knee and hip joints breaks down, leaving the moose in pain, hobbled by swollen joints, and, again, vulnerable to attack by the ever testing and investigating wolves.
Jaw necrosis is another common fate for
moose. Moose haven’t
learned how to floss yet, so the constant overuse of the jaw, and the
moose are often reduced to chewing on leafless, deciduous stems and
results in the jamming of woody material between the teeth. The moose
rough tongue in attempts to dislodge the material, but if it begins to
down and rot, the jaw may become infected and weakened, leading to jaw
during mastication, dooming the moose to slow starvation. Starvation is the number one killer of all
wildlife, moose included, and sometimes the intervention by wolves may
a slow and horrible process.
Like other large North American mammals,
moose are subjected to enormous pressure from vehicular accidents, as
well as by hunting, whether subsistence or trophy, and their wide and
successful dispersal over much of North America today, is due largely
to the wildlife management processes enforced by state and provincial
governments, and to the North American conservation ethic generally.
In short, moose in North America are still strangers in a strange land, and have to overcome significant hardships to survive. No wonder they always look like they have a chip on their shoulders.
|Saw Whet Owl||Barn
|Broad Winged Hawk||Swainsons Hawk||Rough
Steve & Wendy Hall
PO Box 360, 977 Springfield Road, Wilmington, NY 12997
Toll Free: 855-Wolf-Man (855-965-3626)
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Email us: info@AdirondackWildlife.org