Before I jump back into recounting moose adventures, I want to properly introduce you to the central player in these stories—the moose. As the host here, this is something I really should have done in the previous post, so you’ll have to forgive my bad manners.
The moose (scientific name: Alces alces) is the largest living member of the deer family (Cervidae), capable of reaching heights over 7 ft at the shoulder, and weighing more than 1,800 lbs. A male (or “bull”) grows antlers every spring through summer, which he then sheds in the winter. Moose and deer antlers are the fastest growing organs known to science—they can grow up to ½ an inch a day. The largest moose antler spread recorded was close to 7ft wide, and weighed almost 80 lbs. That would be the equivalent of an average-sized person carrying a medium-sized cat around in a giant sombrero on their head. That may not sound too bad, but remember, you’re toting that hat and feline around 24/7. They’re up there for meals, work, weddings, sleep, trips to the dentist, during all of which the hat keeps knocking into nearby objects while the cat swats at everything within reach. After 6-8 months, you’d be happy to dump that cat-in-the-hat into the nearest snow-pile too.
Female moose (or “cows”) are typically smaller than males, and males compete for access to females during the rut in early autumn. Females give birth to one or two calves in May or June, and the calves typically remain with mom until the following spring. Images of mother and calf often make the mom appear very gentle, but don’t let these images (or my story of magical moose in the last post) fool you; cows with calves can be one of the most formidable creatures on land. A mother will charge bears, wolves, humans, and anything else that she thinks poses a threat to her calf, and a moose’s sharply pointed hooves can inflict mortal wounds. According to one source, moose are responsible for more wildlife-related injuries to people (not including parasites and diseases) than any other animal worldwide except hippos. That puts moose into some scary company; hippos are notoriously foul-tempered and have foot-long canines and incisors to back up their attitudes. It’s unclear, however, if the injury statistic includes vehicle collisions. I don’t think there are too many car-hippo accidents in Africa, whereas car-moose accidents are a big problem in areas with lots of moose, and account for many injuries to people. So, while moose may be dangerous, I don’t think we have to begin thinking of them as the hippos of the north.
Speaking of the north, moose are cold-adapted animals, and are found across the mid-northern band of North America, Europe, and Asia, with populations extending into mountainous areas further south. Their long legs allow them to navigate through deep snow, and they are well-insulated with an outer coat composed of hollow guard hairs, and a thick undercoat. It is thought that their preposterously long snout is also an adaptation for cold climates; when they breath in, the frigid air is warmed as it passes through the long nasal passage, thereby protecting the moose’s lungs and core from extreme cold temperatures. In addition to their penchant for cold climates, moose also display a fondness for water, particularly the aquatic vegetation growing in shallow ponds and slow-moving rivers. This vegetation is rich in sodium, and moose have a real weak-spot for salt. Of course based on the typical human diet, I guess we do too. Unlike us, however, the moose will happily dive underwater to get this sodium. Moose are excellent swimmers, capable of speeds up to 6-7 mph (that’s faster than Michael Phelps), and can easily cross large bodies of water. They are not faster than orcas, however, and moose swimming between islands off Alaska are known to have been preyed-upon by orcas. It’s perhaps fitting that one of the primary predators of moose on land is the wolf, and in the water, it’s the sea wolf.
Now that we’ve gotten the introductions out of the way, I want to share some of the more recent encounters I’ve had with moose, beginning with a cow and her relatively new calf in Glacier National Park back in June.
I was camping in the Many Glaciers section of the park and had been waking early to get out on the trails before the hordes of other visitors. The Swiftcurrent Trailhead, located close to my campground, provides excellent moose-viewing opportunities. The trail starts off slowly, winding past a chain of beautiful lakes whose waters are tinted turquoise-blue with glacial sediment, before ascending to the high alpine areas. I had hiked a few miles of the trail my first full day there and had come across a young moose calf hovering at the margins of a willow-thicket along the edge of the first lake in the chain, Fishercap Lake. I had watched the calf for a few minutes hoping its mother would appear, but it soon disappeared into the willows when it heard people approaching.
On this particular morning, I arrived at the lake around 5:30am and looked out onto the gray scene. The air was heavy with fog, and every stem of grass and willow leaf was coated with dew. And there, just about 150 feet away, a large female moose was bedded down in the grass at the edge of the lake, slowly chewing her cud as she dozed. I smiled as I took in the scene; it was beautiful AND I had gotten out before the moose were even awake! This more than made up for the rot-gut instant coffee I had choked down that morning.
I started taking photos of the snoozing moose when I realized she wasn’t alone. Her young calf lay nestled in the grass sleeping next to her, with its head propped up on a small log pillow. I was amazed that the mom would choose this spot to spend the night given how exposed it was, but perhaps she liked the proximity to water.
Grizzly and black bears, coyotes, wolves, and even wolverines pose serious threats to moose calves in Glacier, but a young moose can outswim most of these predators within a few weeks of being born. As I considered the perils a young moose faces, mom’s ears pricked up and she turned away from the water. She quickly rose to her feet and took a few steps towards the wall of willows, with all her senses directed forward. This activity roused the calf from its slumber, and the dazed-looking calf looked around with mild alarm. I thought perhaps mom had heard hikers coming, but I couldn’t hear or see anything coming down the trail. The calf got to its feet, and stared into the willows, mirroring the intensity visible in mom’s demeanor. Mom took a few deliberate steps and vanished into the shrubs, leaving the calf alone on the shore. Mom reappeared a few minutes later, and began browsing on the willows, but she still seemed to be on high alert. I was puzzling over what the perceived threat could have been, when it came prancing out of the vegetation; a pair of white-tailed deer bucks.
The deer emerged about 100 feet from the moose, and after pausing to assess the moose pair, the two deer began to play. They ran through the water, kicking and bucking, and chasing one another in circles. They raced in and out of the shrub thicket, disappearing for up to 10 minutes at a time before reappearing somewhere else. They were totally immersed in their games, fully given over to their pursuit of fun.
Momma moose, meanwhile, was not impressed. To her, these two large animals represented a possible threat to her calf, and she made it clear she did not want them close to her baby. With hackles up, and ears down, she initiated a handful of aborted charges in the direction of the frolicking deer whenever they got too close for her comfort. In between her attempts at keeping the deer away, she would return to her calf to reestablish contact, and do some bonding. These sessions usually consisted of some amount of nuzzling and licking.
The calf, for its part, seemed more curious about the deer than concerned. At one point while mom was busy eating, the calf found itself face to face with the deer, who had emerged only 20 feet away. The deer stared at the calf and I could feel the invitation to play being extended by the deer.
This scenario immediately transported me back to Maine and the encounter between the moose twins and the giant white-tailed deer at Baxter State Park I covered in last week’s post. Only this time, the roles were reversed. When the moose calf took a few tentative steps towards the deer, I thought maybe the young mooseling would engage with the rambunctious duo. But the youngster’s nerves got the better of it, and it retreated to the safety of mom’s side. The deer turned away and went back to their cavorting.
Not long after, the deer again vanished into the willows. But this time, whether by accident or on purpose, they appeared in the shrubs close to mom and the calf. Mom caught wind of them, and charged through the shallows, sending water spraying. This was, by far, the most aggressive action the female moose had exhibited, and the deer retreated rapidly into the thicket. This signaled the end of the play-time, and the deer wandered away. Mom and calf soon followed suit, as did I.
On the surface, this agonistic interaction appears to be the product of an overly-zealous mother protecting her offspring. But the relationship between moose and white-tailed deer is complicated, and the female moose’s aggressive behavior towards the deer could have origins in an unusual form of competition. The two species don’t exhibit extensive geographic overlap, and it has been proposed that part of the reason for the separate distribution is that the deer can have a detrimental effect on the moose via a third player: parasites. This process is known as parasite-mediated competition. White-tailed deer are carriers of a few types of parasites that have minimal impacts on the deer but result in severe pathology and death in moose. In fact, this parasite-mediated competition may be a major source of declining moose populations in the Midwest and Northeastern US. White-tailed deer numbers have been increasing in these areas, likely due to a combination of climate change, habitat alteration, and shifting management practices. White-tailed deer carry a nematode worm (known as the brainworm) that resides in the meningeal tissue adjacent to their brain, but which is not overly detrimental to them. For moose, however, this brainworm is especially pathogenic (it burrows into their brains), and the higher the deer population, the greater the risk of transmission to moose. A coalition composed of researchers from the University of Minnesota and the Grand Portage Band (a Native American band which formerly relied heavily on moose) was recently funded to examine the impact of white-tailed deer and the brainworm on moose populations in Minnesota.
In addition to the diseases associated with the deer, moose in the Midwest and Northeast have been succumbing to a species of tick known as the winter tick. These ticks attach themselves to moose and other large mammals in the fall, and then feed on the mammal through the winter. According to a study conducted by researchers at the University of New Hampshire, the frequency of heavy winter tick infestations has increased, coinciding with the trend for warmer and shorter winters. Over the 3-year period of that study, researchers found that 70% of moose calves died during the winter months, primarily as a result of emaciation and blood loss from extreme tick infestations (an average of 47,371 ticks per moose). Adult moose were better able to cope with the ticks, but they were in noticeably worse body condition as well.
To counter that sobering bit news, I’ll close with a more uplifting story. Those who read last week’s post should recall the close encounter I had with a female moose when I was nine. This encounter seems all the more incredible given how aggressive moose can be. But in the past three years, I’ve had a few encounters that mirror that early experience.
The first of these happened in Alaska three years ago when I was exploring the Kenai Peninsula. I was hiking a relatively remote trail when I came across a mother moose and her large twins taking a late-afternoon siesta about 150 feet off the trail. I watched them nap for a few minutes, and then continued hiking along the trail. On my return trip, the moose had relocated to the trail, cutting off access to the road and my vehicle. I stopped and watched, thinking that after a few minutes they would make their way off the trail, and I would be able to pass by without disturbing them. Normally I would have been content to sit and watch them for hours, but sunset was an hour away, my car was a 30 minute hike, and I still needed to find a camping spot for the night. After 15 minutes had elapsed and the moose showed no signs of moving on, I thought I might provide a little encouragement. I began walking slowly towards them while keeping a sharp eye on mom to see how she would respond. She turned towards me, ears twitching, head slightly down, and took a few steps in my direction. Ok—message received. I stopped and looked around to see what I could use as a barrier in case things escalated. A downed tree behind me and off to the left would provide an ideal, and safe, vantage point. A wall of dead branches created a barrier in front, and the ground dropped off behind the horizontal trunk, allowing me to duck under the tree if necessary. As I made my way onto the trunk, I talked quietly to the moose thinking it might help calm her down. To my surprise, it did. Her ears stopped twitching, and she raised her head back up. Not only did her demeanor change, but she began moving in my direction with her two calves trailing behind her. I watched her closely to see if there were still signs of agitation or aggression, but she seemed to have decided that I was not a threat. The three moose eventually made their way to within 20 feet of me, and contentedly munched on aspen leaves and other greenery. Soon the two calves wandered down the hill, and after a few minutes I could hear them splashing around in the water of a nearby pond. Mom stayed with me and continued eating. Even though mom seemed comfortable with me, I had no desire to push the boundaries, so I stayed put on my tree trunk, a very happy, but thoroughly stuck prisoner.
Finally, after maybe 45 minutes, mom began moving off the trail. She gave a bugle-grunt vocalization, and from down the hill I could hear the twins racing through the water and then begin heading up the hill. It was time for all of us to move along, and so I skirted around mom, and made for the car in the failing light.
Lest you think this was an isolated incident, a similar scene played out just last week about ½ mile from our place here in Colorado. I had left the house for an early-morning walk when I came across a mom moose and her twins. After an initial period of uncertainty on mom’s part (twitchy ears, head slightly bowed, a few steps in my direction), I had a quiet chat with her, which again seemed to do the trick. Mom relaxed and then slowly brought her twins to within 15 feet of me. In fact, when she went to investigate something in the woods (I think a bull moose was in there), she left the two calves with me for about 10 minutes before beckoning them with her bugle-grunt call.
The calves, however, were enjoying their bit of freedom (and I suspect they liked their new babysitter). The mooselings were busy nosing about, and when one found a bit of coyote scat in the road, it got down on its knees to give it a thorough inspection. The calf sniffed the scat a few times, got to its feet, and then gave the scat a few agitated kicks. After another call from mom, the twins took off and vanished into the grove of aspens, leaving me with another wild moose tale to tell.
Next week: Bears of the West
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About the author:
Loren grew up in the wilds of Boston, Massachusetts, and honed his natural history skills in the urban backyard. He attended Cornell University for his undergraduate degree in Natural Resources, and received his PhD in Ecology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has traveled extensively, and in the past few years has developed an affliction for wildlife photography.