Alaska's State Land Mammal - The Moose

Before talking about the moose (Alces alces), it is necessary to establish which particular moose is being discussed. The animal known as a moose in North America is known as an 'elk' in Europe. In North America, 'elk' refers to the wapiti (Cervus Canadensis). The wapiti is almost identical to the smaller red deer of Western and Central Europe. The moose is the only species in its genus so is known as a monotypic species. Other animals which are the sole representatives of their genera include the giraffe, okapi, numbat and rock hyrax.

The moose (North America) and elk (Europe) is the second largest land animal of both North America and Europe. It is also the largest species of deer. There are large numbers of moose throughout Scandinavia and the Baltic States. There are moose in Russia with small numbers found in Poland, the Czech Republic and Belarus. They occupy most of Canada, central and western Alaska, New England, New York, the mid-Atlantic coastal region, Minnesota, Michigan and the upper Rocky Mountains. They may also be seen in the Utah mountains and Colorado. Way back in 1910, the species were introduced into New Zealand. Although it was thought that they had died out in that country, hair samples were found in 2002. They have been introduced into Newfoundland and Anticosti Island and, in 2008, they were also reintroduced into the highlands of Scotland.

MooseCredit: Wikimedia

The moose is the State land mammal for Alaska.

The word 'mooswa' means 'twig-eater', the name given to the animal by the Algonquin Indians. This group used the moose for meat and hides. Bones and antlers were fashioned into tools. Moose meat has protein levels similar to red meat but is lower in fats with a higher proportion of the fat being polyunsaturated. Moose meat is similar to flavoursome, tender beef.

The different subspecies - European, Eastern, Western, Siberian, Alaska and Shiras - vary mainly in the shape and size of the antlers and the size of the animal itself. Only the males have antlers. The moose has palmate antlers which fork and flatten after growing cylindrically and at right angles to the midline of the skull. This configuration looks somewhat like a hand with the fingers extending from it. A 'rack' or spread of antlers may have as many as 30 tines or spikes and weigh up to 20 kilos. Individuals can be distinguished by the shape of the antlers as no two are the same.

The first sign of antlers appear on the calf as two little bumps on the head. At about twelve months, little antlers emerge from these bumps. The antlers (rack) are shed each year with larger ones taking their place. The antlers are living tissue. The soft, smooth 'velvet' which covers them contains thousands of blood vessels which supply minerals such as calcium. The tissue dies and solidifies into mineralised material. Bull moose rub the velvet from their antlers against trees. If a bull moose is castrated, he will shed his antlers and the new ones will be deformed and misshapen. These will not be shed.

Moose and CalfCredit: Wikimedia

The moose has a long face with a wide, drooping muzzle and overhanging top lip. The lip dangles down over the chin. There is a hump at the shoulders and a 'bell' or flap of skin which dangles and hangs beneath the throat. The ears are large and the tail small. The front legs are longer than the hind legs. All feet have two large toes and two smaller toes. The large toes splay out to minimise sinking in mud or snow. Moose are herbivores and need around 20 kg of food per day, eating willow, aspen, birch and berries as well as pond grasses and weeds. They are comfortable in marshy, swampy habitats and may lie in shallow water to keep cool or to keep biting insects at bay. They have good hearing and a keen sense of smell but poor eyesight.

In winter, moose grow a thicker coat. They scrape away snow to feed on lichens or moss and even pine cones if they are desperate. When the ice has melted, aquatic plants will be grazed under water. Moose are good swimmers and can swim for miles and can even submerge themselves of 30 seconds or more. The moose has long legs and moves easily through deep snow or over rough ground, moving at a steady trot of 20 mph and accelerating to 35 mph for short distances.

The Alaskan subspecies is the largest, reaching over seven feet high and weighing up to 1580 pounds (bulls) and 800 pounds for cows. The antler span may be 6ft although more typical is 2.9 to 4.9 feet. The record is 7.6 foot tall, weighing 1, 798 pound and an antler span of 6.5 feet. That is one big moose!

The mating season is from September to October. Cows give a wailing type of call while the bulls make heavy grunting sounds which can carry for 500 metres. Fighting occurs between the males during the mating season. Smaller bulls will usually give way to larger animals. Bulls may mate with several females. After eight months, one to two calves are born, weighing around 30 pounds. They are more red in colour than their brown or near-black parents. The legs are lighter than the body.

Cows and calves are very bonded and stay together until just before the cow is due to calve again. The life span is 15 to 25 years. Generally moose ignore each other although they may graze in the same area. Although they have few predators, young stock and cows with calves are most likely to be attacked by wolves, Siberian tigers, bears and cougars. Moose will charge their foes, striking out with their front feet.

Moose will generally attempt to avoid humans but when harassed, will attack. Moose are quite unpredictable and should be treated with great respect. A collision in a vehicle with a moose is particularly dangerous because of the shape of the animal. The moose is top heavy and, when struck, the long spindly legs may be broken. The heavy body lands on the car hood, sliding through the windscreen and crushing the occupants. Even vehicles with a high clearance can be badly damaged. In some areas, roads and railways may be fenced off to keep motorists and moose apart.

The moose may be clumsy and rather ugly but it is a survivor and in no danger of becoming extinct.