ExploreNorth, your resource center for exploring the circumpolar North

Return to the Home Page The ExploreNorth Blog About ExploreNorth Contact ExploreNorth

Search ExploreNorth

All About Moose

by Murray Lundberg

Click on each photo below to greatly enlarge it

Photo of a bull moose in a taiga forest     Despite often-heard comments about them having a face only a mother could love, the moose is one of the animals that are most sought by wildlife photographers, hunters, and visitors to the North. As the largest member of the deer family, the title "Monarch of the Forest" is very apt.

    A bull moose can reach 1,400 pounds, and the subspecies tundra moose Alces alces gigas, found in Alaska, can be 1,800 pounds and 8½ feet long. Their size doesn't limit their speed at all - those long legs can move a moose along at up to 35 miles per hour.

    The moose, although relatively common in the lightly-forested regions of North America from about 40° North Latitude to the Arctic Circle, came across the Bering Land Bridge from Asia eons before humans followed, and are now found in boreal forests throughout the northern hemisphere.

Photo of moose hair     The moose's dense coat, seen in the scan to the right, keeps it warm at virtually any temperature. In the winter, temperatures above minus 5° Celsius (23° F.) are quite uncomfortably warm for them.

    The antlers of the bulls, which can grow to 70 inches across, make thickly-forested areas impassable for them. You may hear the term "moose horns" used, but that is incorrect - antlers are made of bone and are grown, shed and regrown yearly, while horns are made of keratin and keep growing year after year.

    If you've ever been on a tour bus in Alaska, you've probably heard that the "beard" that hangs from a moose's throat is called a "moosetache" - it's actually called a bell or dewlap, and nobody has discovered what purpose it serves.

    A moose's diet varies dramatically from season to season, and not only the diet, but sometimes the age and sex of the animal, can be judged from the scat. In the winter, when much of their diet consists of branches and other dry woody materials, the scat is in pellet form. In Alaska, these "moose nuggets" are used in a variety of crafts, even being varnished and set in jewelry such as earrings!

    Moose are fiercely protective of their young, which are born from mid-May to early June after a gestation period of about 230 days. Many people are injured or killed each year when they approach a cow with a calf or calves too closely. The occurrence of twins depends upon range conditions, but can be up to 75% of births. Triplets are rare, only occurring about once in 1,000 births.

Photo of a moose cow and calf

    The greatest enemies of the moose, other than humans, are wolves and bears (both black and grizzly). In the Yukon River Flats of central Alaska, only about 30% of moose calves survive their first year, in the southwestern Yukon the survival rate is 19%, and in Denali National Park, the high grizzly population reduces that number to just over 11%.

    Seeing a wolf pack kill a moose is almost universally repulsive to humans, even those who recognize it as part of the natural world. The size, power and speed of a bull moose in particular forces the pack to use every possible aspect of the situation to their advantage if they are to be successful. Barry Lopez, in his excellent book Of Wolves and Men, describes a kill:

    The idea of wolves on the hunt powerfully engages the human imagination. The wolf spends perhaps one-third of his life in pursuit of food. It is a task for which he evolved and to which he is well suited. With powerful jaw muscles he will clamp down on a moose's bulbous nose and hold on tenaciously while the moose swings him clear of the ground or stomps on him in a vain effort to throw him off.
    ...Wolves kill the largest ungulates by running alongside them, slashing at their hams, ripping at their flanks and abdomen, tearing at the nose and head, harassing the animal until it weakens enough through loss of blood and the severing of muscles to be thrown to the ground. At this point the wolves usually rip open the abdominal cavity and begin eating, sometimes before the animal is dead. If the chase has been a hard one, the wolves may rest before eating anything.
Photo of a bull moose near the Muldrow Glacier in Denali National Park, Alaska

    Moose, however, seem to fare quite well against wolves statistically, for reasons that are not completely understood. The greatest success ratios by wolves are with calves and older moose with arthritic joints or other health problems. Wildlife biologist L. David Mech studied wolf/moose interaction on Isle Royale, Michigan, and found that of 160 moose within hunting range of a wolf pack:

- 29 were ignored,
- 11 discovered the wolves first and eluded detection,
- 24 refused to run when confronted and were left alone.
Of the 96 that ran:
- 43 got away immediately,
- 34 were surrounded but not harmed,
- 12 made successful defensive stands,
- 7 were attacked,
- 6 were killed,
- 1 was wounded and abandoned.

    Moose are the favourite game animal for hunters in Alaska, and each year 6-8,000 animals are taken in the state. In all areas where highways pass through moose habitat, road kills also take their toll.

Photo of a bull moose - the Monarch of the Forest     Global warming is increasing the danger of one of the most serious health issues for moose in the far north. A nematode "brain worm", Parelaphostrongylus tenuis, is carried by deer, and although the deer are not effected, blindness, disorientation, paralysis and death are the result when moose are infected. The parasite cannot survive in very cold climates, but as white-tailed deer move north into regions such as the Yukon Territory due to the warming climate, so does the worm.

    To balance that problem, global warming also increases the incidence of forest fires, which are good for moose. That may seem odd, but when mature spruce forests burn, the new open areas are wonderful moose habitat, with an abundance of new plant growth. Logging, while it produces the open areas, does not release nitrogen into the cold northern soils as fires do.

    Below are some links to more information about moose.

Moose Links

A photo of two moose in a meadow

Alaska Moose Federation
This organization's mandate is to encourage better stewardship of moose in Alaska; the Web site has a great deal of information about moose and management plans.

Canadian Moose in New Zealand
Canadian moose introduced into New Zealand survived for decades, then disappeared. One man's obsessive search has now turned up proof they are still out there.

Counting Alaska's Wildlife
Cathy Harms describes the procedures for different species in Alaska, including moose.

A Deadly Conflict
This article from The Klondike Nugget of September 10, 1898 describes a couple of bull moose who died when their antlers locked during a fight.

Moose in Alaska
An introduction, including physical and lifestyle descriptions, and hunting information, from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Moose in the Yukon
From the Fish & Wildlife Department, lots of information on moose characteristics, distribution, seasonal activities and viewing possibilities.

Moose and the Big City
If you want to see a moose in Alaska, don't go to Denali Park, try Anchorage - an article from the Alaska Science Forum.

Moose Browse and Beaver Ponds
How do moose and beaver affect one another when they share the same area? An article from the Alaska Science Forum.

Moose Fatalities on Alaska Roads & Railroads
Deep snow increases the number of deaths, and 2012 was a bad year for moose.

Moose Migration Mystery
This very well-illustrated article about the moose of the northern Yukon and Alaska includes photos of how moose are tagged and tracked.

Moose in Winter: Alaska's Half-Ton Road Hazard
December and January are bad news for both moose and vehicles - an article from the Alaska Science Forum.

Moose Viewing in Anchorage, Alaska
Powerline Pass is world famous among wildlife photographers for easy access to rutting bull moose in the Fall.

Newborn Moose Calves Fight Very Slim Odds
Any moose calf alive in mid-summer is a very lucky animal - an article from the Alaska Science Forum.

The Poop Moose
If you're looking for a truly unique candy dispenser, you just found it!