Time for another animal spotlight, and this week, it’s the moose! Sadly in my research I discovered meese is definitely not the plural of moose… it’s just moose, like sheep and sheep. Despite the sad loss of this wonderful word, there are lots of interesting and often unexpected bits of life history connected to these animals which makes learning about them worthwhile. This article covers their lives from Arctic forests and lakes, all the way to New Zealand, and includes fasting, sneaking and an ancient history. Hope you enjoy!
History and habitat
Moose (also sometimes known as elk) are big herbivores that are found across northern America, Europe and Asia. The first thing to know about moose is that they are big, really big. They can measure up to 2.1 m to shoulder height, and they still have their head and antlers above this too. Male moose, known as bulls, can weigh from 380 to 700 kg and females a little lighter at 200 kg to 490 kg.
Moose as a species have been around for a long time, their earliest ancestor Libralces gallicus or French moose being around 2 million years ago. This was before the ice age, when many species were giants such as the huge Irish elk, mamooths and aurochs (an extinct species of wild cow). Whilst nowadays most animals have either shrunken in size or only the smaller species have survived, moose still retain their ancient size.
The name moose comes from the Algonquian language of the Montagnais Indians (aka Innu) from Quebec, derived from their word moosh (or mush) which means ‘twig eater’ or ‘stripper and eater of bark’. This is because much of their diet is made up of twigs, bark and young tree shoots, though they also eat a lot of aquatic plants in lakes and mires. They can even dive under water for up to 50 seconds to access plants on the lake bed, the only member of the deer family that can do that! Their unusually shaped nose helps them to do this by being able to seal shut when under water. Their hooves also help them with their aquatic life, being able to splay open to give them more surface area and so to propel them faster in the water. This is also useful on land when they are walking on snow, acting like snowshoes.
As a big animal they need a lot of food. Alaska moose, the biggest of the subspecies, are said to require 9770 kilocalories a day (for perspective the average human needs around 2000 kcal). They get this in two ways, first by roaming over large areas, and secondly by squeezing every last little bit of nutrition out of their food. This they do by rumination. Moose, like cows, have a four chambered stomach. In the first chamber the food is fermented. Then the moose regurgitate the partially digested food into their mouths and do what is called ‘chewing the cud’. After this it goes into the second, third and fourth stomach chambers to have all the nutrition carefully extracted.
As they need lots of twiggy bark covered things to eat, moose are usually found in forests. They can’t sweat, so tend to live in cooler parts of the world, jumping into water to cool off if they really need to. They also have longer front legs than back legs which helps them to jump over things when moving around the forests.
Moose are generally quite solitary. Mothers and calves of course will travel together, and have a very strong bond, but otherwise the animals keep to themselves outside of the mating season. During the rut, when males compete to mate with females, the bulls will get so engrossed in their battles that they will stop eating completely for around 2 weeks.
Moose are also quite solitary when it comes to humans. They will often hide and avoid humans rather than confronting them, and so are rarely aggressive without a reason. However, if provoked, scared or if a human comes between a mother and calf they can react aggressively. This also goes for moose that have become used to being fed, being denied food. Talk about hanger!
If in any way provoked though, they tend not to focus their anger on the provoker but will attack anyone in the vicinity so it’s important to be careful even if you’re not annoying them. They are strong, have sharp hooves, and their kicks and swipes with antlers can kill both humans and predators, so really, don’t provoke them.
Their other source of danger, though this isn’t really connected to aggression, is vehicle collisions. Many roads go through moose habitats so they can often cross over when cars are present. As the moose is so tall, the bulk of their body is above the hood of an average car meaning that if hit, their whole body will completely crush the windscreen and people in the front seats. This frequently leads to death as it isn’t something seat belts or airbags can help with. This has led some car companies to ‘moose test’ their cars to ensure safety of the passengers in case a collision happens.
Population and Predation
Great news, moose are another creature which aren’t in decline! In fact their number worldwide is increasing. In nature adult moose are pretty feisty so have few predators. Siberian tigers in Russia are probably their most regular predator, but a pack of grey wolves can also sometimes bring one down, as can a brown bear. Usually however, predators will go for young or infirm moose, which can be hunted by black bears and cougars too.
As they are good swimmers and sometimes swim between islands, Killer whales are actually one of their predators too in the North west coast of America, and there has even been a case of a Greenland shark hunting a moose.
Despite their overall good numbers, moose populations are declining in the south of their range in North America. This is thought to be due to a combination of wolf predation, infections and parasites like liver flukes and brain worms. It is also thought that increasing temperatures from climatic change is causing heat stress in the animals as well as allowing more parasites to survive winter and so infect them. In some areas there are also some issues of habitat loss to development such as farming, commercial and housing areas, and industries such as mining. However, overall their numbers are on the up.
Moose are regularly hunted by people, both for sport and for subsistence hunting as a source of food. In fact in parts of Europe the moose population is rising so quickly that around 50% are allowed to be harvested each year.
Moose sneaking around New Zealand
There have been a few attempts to bring moose to new places. In the 1950s the then USSR and Poland brought moose back into Kampinos National Park and into Belarus. The moose in Poland still remain today. Attempts at reintroduction to the marshlands north of Berlin in the 1930s and 1960s were not so successful. In 2008 two moose were also reintroduced to the Scottish highlands.
The story in New Zealand is a bit more mysterious. In 1900 and 1910 some moose were introduced to the western part of New Zealand’s South Island, around Hokitika and Fiordland. However, these are not considered very suitable areas and with few sightings and some kills, the moose were pretty soon presumed dead, the last proven sighting being in 1952. Unexpectedly in 1972 a moose antler turned up, and in 2002 some hair that was collected was tested, and its DNA showed it was from a moose. This led to an extensive search, and whilst there has still not been any sightings of the animals, there has been evidence found of browsing, antler marks on trees, and bedding areas, so the moose may still be sneaking around the forests of western New Zealand!
Giant, ancient and surprisingly aquatic, moose are impressive creatures. They have strength and size, yet tend to keep to themselves, and whilst rarely domesticated, those that are have been known to be incredibly loyal. All in all they are pretty incredible creatures with a great range of talents and qualities. That and they make amoosing puns…
For more information:
An article about the Pliocene Epoch, the time period before the ice age from which the earliest moose fossils come from:
How moose and beavers can be unlikely friends with a symbiotic relationship:
Cover image: Ryan Hagerty/Public Domain