Colours of Wildlife: Moose

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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!"

Bull Moose by Willem

Today I treat you to one of Earth's most magnificent creatures – a bull Moose! The moose, Alces alces, is actually called 'Elk' in Europe. This causes confusion in America because they call a different species an Elk, a large deer also called a Wapiti. The Wapiti/American Elk is a close relative of the Eurasian Red Deer. The moose is also a deer, but only distantly related to those two. Strangely enough it is closer to the small Roe Deer, which I'll hopefully feature here soon. The name 'Elk' comes from an old Germanic language, while 'Moose' comes from a native Algonquian language.

World's Largest Deer

The moose is the largest surviving species of deer in the world. With exceptionally long legs, a bull moose may stand over 2.1m/7' at the shoulder. The heaviest moose reliably recorded was about 800 kg/1760 lbs though unverified claims of over a ton have been made. Bull moose also have the largest and heaviest antlers in the world: their span can be 2.1 m/7' and their total weight 36 kg/80 lbs. The largest modern moose subspecies is the Alaskan Moose, Alces alces gigas. The smallest is the Amur/Ussuri/Manchurian Elk, Alces alces cameloides, of which males and females may stand as little as 1.65 m/5'5" and weigh as little as 200 kg/440 lbs. They also have the smallest antlers. Antler size correlates to a degree with age and body size, though very elderly moose have smaller antlers again.

In moose, antler size also varies geographically. Both in Eurasia and the Americas, moose antlers tend to be larger in the north than in the south. Moose antlers are of the style called 'palmate', which means they broaden out towards the tips like the palm of an open hand, or a palm leaf. The broadness of the 'palm' part varies a lot, and some moose have more typical deer-like antlers with narrow tines. There is a vast amount of variation between individual moose as well. Antlers are a sign of how strong and vigorous its bearer is, and bull moose vying for cows may only compare antlers before one gives way to the one that out-antlers it. But if visually more evenly matched, they may fight, clashing their horns together and wrestling each other. It's been recorded that moose antlers got locked together to the point where their owners couldn't separate anymore and died. This has happened with some antelopes in Africa also. Females also select mates judging by antler size. Apart from display and combat, the antlers might even have a practical use, acting as a parabolic reflector to amplify sounds on their way to the ears, improving a moose's sense of hearing. Like other deer, moose cast their antlers off at the end of their breeding seasons, re-growing them anew each season. The growth takes place over two to four months; moose antlers rate as some of the fastest growing tissues in the animal world. While antlers are typically a male feature, moose cows with hormonal imbalances sometimes grow antlers. Conversely, a bull which hormonal problems may develop abnormal antlers, often ones that keep growing and are not cast off.

Antlers grow from a special kind of skin called 'velvet' on the top of the skull that is rich in blood vessels. The velvet deposits bone on its inner surface; as the bone deposition grows, the antlers expand outwards, branching according to the pattern of the species. When full-sized, the velvet sloughs off in rather untidy-looking, bloody strips, revealing the bone. When the season is over, a layer of bone at the base of the antler weakens so that soon the antler falls or is broken off.

Other interesting anatomical features of moose relate to their lifestyles. They are uniquely aquatic among the deer. Moose often wade into marshes, lakes and ponds. Their hooves splay out in soft ground, giving them better traction. The length of their legs enable them to wade into deep water. But going deeper still, their feet leave contact with the bottom and their broad hooves now are paddles with which they swim. They even dive, reaching depths of 5.5m/18' or more! The huge snout of the moose has fatty pads and muscles that close the nostrils when it is submerged. It is the only kind of deer able to feed underwater. About half of a moose's food consists of aquatic plants. These plants supply it with adequate levels of sodium, a mineral otherwise rare in terrestrial vegetation.

The special snout also works well outside of the water. It has very dextrous muscles that allow it to grasp and manipulate vegetation. The moose can 'wrap' its snout and front lips around a twig, stripping off all its leaves and pulling them into the mouth. To access nutritious leaves, a moose may lean on a small tree top push it over, or stand on its hind legs to reach leaves as much as 4.2m/14' above the ground. They seek out leaves and shoots fairly low in fiber but high in nutrients. An average moose eats about 32 kg/70 lbs of food a day. The variety of nutritious plants a moose needs, means that they need large ranges of quality natural habitat.

The moose snout also hosts ample scent receptors, giving it an excellent sense of smell. The moose use this to seek out the most nutritious leaves and shoots and to find food under a layer of snow. They also use their sense of smell to find other moose or to detect predators.

Another feature of the moose is the flap of skin and hair, called a dewlap, that dangles below its chin. Bulls and cows have this, but it tends to be bigger in larger bulls. It may be another visual signal, or it may help with cooling down, since its large, flat surface is good at radiating away heat.

Indeed, heat can be a problem for moose. Their huge bodies retain a lot of body heat. They are adapted to living in cold regions; they're even dependent on there being some snow on the ground in winter. They have a coat consisting of long, outer guard-hairs and a soft, inner woolly layer. This is great for insulating them against cold air. But in the summer, in the northern regions where the moose roam, it can get very hot and humid. One reason why moose seek out water, is because this helps them keep cool when it's warm outside.

But moose also enter water to escape the attentions of biting flies and other parasites. They're indeed rather plagued by these. Ticks and botfly larvae can infest their skins and cause them great discomfort. To rid themselves of these they may rub themselves against trees until their skin is raw. I wish there could soon be a northern equivalent to the oxpeckers we have down here in Africa, which help rid big mammals from their skin parasites!

Apart from parasites, moose suffer depredations from large carnivores. These include bears, wolves, tigers, and in America, cougars/pumas. Always the animals most at risk are the young ones. Females will defend their calves; moose can give powerful kicks in all directions. Packs of wolves may succeed in bringing adult moose down. Bears sometimes will drive them off and consume their kill. Even wolverines have been recorded killing adult moose, but these may have been weakened by disease, starvation or other factors. Unexpected predators of moose are killer whales and Greenland sharks! This predation happens when moose swim over stretches of ocean.

Of course, moose also suffer from human predation. Large and impressive, they're frequent targets for trophy hunters. In much of northern Europe and Asia, moose meat is popular on the menu. In some places humans have tried to boost moose numbers by removing natural predators; this can have bad ecological consequences.

Moose also suffer in other ways from humans. Alteration of their habitat has in places allowed the insurgence of deer species moose otherwise wouldn't have contact with, and these have spread new diseases to them. Many moose are also killed by collisions on highways and railroads. Collisions of moose with cars can also seriously injure or kill the human occupants; all-around it thus seems to be a good policy to try to prevent these as much as possible. Moose can act aggressively towards humans, feeling threatened by them, and directly cause a rather large number of human injuries and even fatalities. The best thing to do when you are a target of moose aggression, is to run away. The moose doesn't really want to hurt you and will abandon its attack when no longer feeling threatened. When it feels in danger, a moose may roar loudly; a bull contemplating aggression will raise the fur of its neck and shoulder hump – a warning sign not to be ignored.

When left in peace, moose can maintain or increase their numbers with ease. A cow can bear a calf each two years or so, twins if she's very well-fed. Bull moose will try to mate with several cows and don't take an interest in their own offspring. The gestation period is about eight months; calves are born in May or June. They have reddish fur. A calf stays with its mom until the next calf comes. Adult moose are typically loners. They can live to the age of 15-25 years.

Moose are mammals of the cold northern forests both in the Old and the New World. Due to burgeoning human populations and alterations of the landscape, they have retreated from the more southern parts of their range, such as France and Scotland, and the race occurring in the Caucasus Mountains has even become extinct. Moose are likely to suffer from climate change. Warmer temperatures mean more ticks and other parasites, infestations being heavy enough to kill many moose calves. Adult moose with ticks may rub so much fur off themselves that they become in danger of chilling to death in winter.

At least many people today know of and appreciate moose. They're not the most likely of mammals to go extinct anytime soon. But it would be great if they could return to, and thrive in, all of their previous range.

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