Colours of Wildlife: Stag Moose

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Stag Moose

Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

Stag Moose by Willem

In recent articles I've been showing you the evolution of deer and the rather small and simple proto-antlers of the first true deer species. Now let's take a leap of some millions of years and show where the antlers went from there! The evolution of antlers happened rather rapidly and today we have several deer species with amazingly large and complex antlers, all of which I hope to feature here soon. But some prehistoric species were even more impressive.

Case in point: the Stag Moose, Cervalces scotti. It is sometimes called the Elk Moose. The scientific name comes from 'Cervus' ('deer'), 'Alces' ('moose') and the species name honours William Barryman Scott, who found one of the best specimens in the late nineteenth century. It is known from very complete and well-preserved remains, even including some mummified tissue. A lot of the remains are in the form of preserved dropped antlers. Like modern deer, the stag moose also shed its antlers each year, growing a new set to replace them likely over a couple of months. There would thus be many more sets of antlers in the ground, than there are full skeletons.

This deer, comparable in size to a modern moose reaching an estimated bodyweight of 700 kg/1500 lbs or more, had antlers so strange I had to refer to several different photos to get an idea just what was going on with them. Each antler had two main divisions: the outwardmost one swept sideways and to the rear, and was a flat, broad 'blade', without any clear projections or subdivisions other than a short prong or two; the second division of the antler rose upwards and subdivided into two 'palms', one facing forward and one backward, each branching into several 'fingers', and the branches sometimes twisting along their main axes. As is true of living deer, stag moose must have varied a lot individually also, with significant differences in how the 'pattern' manifested in different individuals. Almost 100% sure is that there must have lived ones with antlers even larger and weirder than any we've found so far.

In its body, it was a more typical deer, fairly long-legged and heavy-bodied, with a face and snout not as lengthened as that of the modern moose. The stag moose was fairly closely related to modern moose, being a member of the Capreolinae subfamily of the deer family. Strangely enough, aside from the moose, its closest modern relative is the roe, a small deer with simple antlers! The genus Cervalces is extinct today, but included several known prehistoric species, all with interesting antlers. Stag moose proper were found in America, but other Cervalces were known from Eurasia. I hope to feature one or two of them here also in time. Some of them are sometimes put into a different genus, Libralces.

Despite its strange appearance, the stag moose was essentially a modern species. Its oldest fossils date to 30 000 years ago, a mere blink of an eye in evolutionary terms. It appears to have gone extinct by 11 500 years ago, giving it one of the shortest reigns of any of the critters I've featured here so far. It was part of an Ice Age fauna of giant mammals that included woolly mammoths, giant bison, giant beavers, giant ground sloths, sabretooth cats, giant short-faced bears, and more conventional mammals such as the woodland musk-ox. All of these are now extinct, along with the stag moose. The culprit might very well be us, humans, since the extinction of these creatures happened at the same time as humans entered and multiplied throughout North America. A similar and even worse mass extinction coincided with the entrance of humans into South America. Certainly humans can be blamed for a lot, but in the case of the stag moose, we might turn out to be innocent. This species appears to have always inhabited a lot of land where people were unlikely to live or to go: marshy, swampy or boggy ground, with growth of sedges and willow trees. It also lived in terrain where it probably did come into occasional contact with humans, in areas where tundra mixed with coniferous forest, or 'spruce parklands', a typical ice-age woodland.

In fact, this kind of terrain is the same as that inhabited by the modern moose, which species is still with us in spite of considerable hunting pressure from humans. This might mean that in fact the stag moose went extinct because of the modern moose outcompeting and ecologically replacing it. If moose were just slightly more 'successful' at thriving and reproducing in the same habitat, then within a relatively short while – a few thousand years – they would have managed to completely replace the stag moose. This would be a typical and natural 'evolutionary turnover' in which species are replaced ecologically by similar yet slightly 'better' variations. It is different from the catastrophic mass extinctions where lots of species go extinct at the same time leaving huge ecological 'holes' that take many thousands or millions of years to fill up again.

Habitat change may also have played a role in the stag moose's demise. It lived close to the southern edge of the glaciers, which at the height of the last ice age pushed south to about where most of the border between Canada and the USA lies now. The retreat of the glaciers left the land rapidly warming up and changing. A lot of the boggy forest was replaced by warmer deciduous forest with a tall canopy and not much undergrowth, or by open, treeless grassland. The change of habitat, PLUS the competition represented by modern moose for the patches of suitable habitat remaining, PLUS perhaps hunting pressure from humans on stag moose, might have all worked together in pushing this amazing species over the brink.

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