Content adapted from "The Moose" © Hinterland Who's Who (www.hww.ca). Used with permission.
MOOSE is thought to be derived from the words "mus" or "moos" of the Algonquian (North American Indian) family of languages; thought to mean 'eater of twigs' or 'he strips off the bark'.
The Latin or scientific name for the moose is Alces alces.
This species is divided further into subspecies with subtle differences in appearance and distinguished by their geographical location, including four in North America. They are listed below in the order they were first classified:
|Alberta has an estimated 118,000 moose.
- photo Gord Trenholm
(A. alces americana)
... Eastern Canadian (Taiga) moose (1822 - Clinton)
(A. alces gigas)
... Alaskan (Yukon / Tundra) moose (1899 - Miller)
(A. alces shirasi)
... Shiras (Wyoming) moose (1914 - Nelson)
(A. alces andersoni)
... Western Canadian moose (1950 - Peterson)
The moose population in Canada is now estimated at more than 830,000 moose!
The moose population in Alberta, as estimated by the Alberta Fish and Wildlife Division, is around 118,000 animals.
A bull moose in full spread of antlers is the most imposing beast in North America. It stands taller at the shoulder than the largest saddle horse. Big bulls weigh up to 600 kg in most parts of Canada; the giant Alaska-Yukon subspecies weighs as much as 800 kg. In fact, the moose is the largest member of the deer family whose North American members also include elk (wapiti), white-tailed deer, mule deer, and caribou.
Moose have long, slim legs that end in cloven or divided hooves often more than 18 cm long. The body is deep and massively muscled at the shoulders, giving the animal a humped appearance. It is slab-sided and low-rumped with rather slender hindquarters and a stubby, well-haired tail. The head is heavy and compact, and the nose extends in a long, mournful-looking arch terminating in a long, flexible upper lip. The ears resemble a mule’s but are not quite as long. Most moose have a pendant of fur-covered skin, about 30 cm long, called a bell, hanging from the throat.
In colour the moose varies from dark brown, almost black, to reddish or greyish brown, with grey or white leg stockings.
|A mature bull moose may have a set of antlers that spans over 180 cm from tip to tip. - photo Gord Trenholm
In late summer and autumn, a mature bull carries a large rack of antlers that may extend more than 180 cm between the widest tips, but that are more likely to span between 120 and 150 cm. The heavy main beams broaden into large palms that are fringed with a series of spikes (tines) usually less than 30 cm long. Antler colour ranges from pale, sometimes almost white, to brown with dark coloured tine tips. The largest most mature bulls tend to shed their summer velvet earlier and often appear to have lighter coloured antlers by fall time.
A bull calf may develop button antlers during its first year. The antlers begin growing in midsummer and during the period of growth are soft and spongy, with blood vessels running through them. They are covered with a velvety skin. By late August or early September the antlers are fully developed and become hard and bony. The velvet dries and the bulls rub it off against tree trunks.
Mature animals usually shed their antlers between November and January, but some younger bulls may carry theirs through the winter until April. Yearling bulls usually have spike antlers, and the antlers of two-year-olds are larger, usually flat at the ends. Moose grow antlers each summer and shed them each autumn.
Habitat and habits
Moose are found on the rocky, wooded hillsides of the western mountain ranges; along the margins of half a million lakes, muskegs and streams of the great boreal forest; and even on the northern tundra and in the aspen parkland of the prairies.
|Moose have extremely poor eyesight but an incredible sense of smell and equally incredible hearing. - photo Rob Miskosky
Moose tolerate cold very well but suffer from heat. In summer, especially during fly season, moose often cool off in water for several hours each day. In fact, moose are quite at home in the water. They sometimes dive 5.5 m or more for plants growing on a lake or pond bottom. Moose have been known to swim 19 km and more. Of all North American deer, only the caribou is a more powerful swimmer. A moose calf is able to follow its mother on a long swim even while very young, occasionally resting its muzzle on the cow’s back for support.
The eyesight of the moose is extremely poor, but its senses of smell and hearing far compensate.
With their tremendous physical power and vitality, moose can travel over almost any terrain. Long legs carry them easily over deadfall trees or through deep snow that would stop a deer or wolf. Their cloven hooves and dewclaws spread widely to provide support when they wade through soft muskeg or snow. When frightened, they may crash noisily through the underbrush, but in spite of their great size even full-grown, antlered bulls can move almost as silently as a cat through dense forest.
Before bedding down a moose usually travels upwind for a time and then swings back in a partial circle. Thus predators following its track will have to approach from the windward direction. Skilled hunters know when to leave the track and work their way upwind to the hiding-place of their quarry.
Bull moose in rut will dig large wallows with their front legs and urinate into them. These are known as “rut pits”. You can usually smell these long before you see them. Active rut pits are a sure sign that a big bull moose is present in the immediate area.
All moose will urinate over their tarsal glands when threatened and/or scared, thus releasing a strong odor which will warn other moose nearby.
Moose are found in Canadian forests from the Alaska boundary to the eastern tip of Newfoundland and Labrador. It is estimated there are between 800,000 and 1 million moose in Canada. Since the beginning of settlement in Canada, there have been considerable shifts in the distribution of moose. They are now found in many regions which had no moose in pre-settlement days. There are now large moose populations in north-central Ontario and in the southern part of British Columbia where moose were previously unknown. They have only recently spread to the Quebec North Shore, north of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The island of Newfoundland, which had never been occupied by moose, was "seeded" with a few pairs in the early 1900s and now has large populations. Moose are constantly spreading northwards through the sparse transition forest that extends to the open tundra.
In summer the moose’s diet includes leaves, some upland plants, with a strong preference for water plants in great quantity whenever available. A large adult moose eats from 15 to 20 kg (green weight) of twigs each day in winter, and in summer eats from 25 to 30 kg of forage; mainly consisting of twigs, leaves, shrubs, upland plants, and of course, their favourite: water plants. They will dip their heads under the surface of the water to feed on lilies and other water plants, often diving down several metres to obtain such delicacies. Indeed, moose will wade far out into a swampy pond to munch on their favourite summer forage.
|Mineral licks offer the bull moose much needed minerals that help in antler growth. - photo Rob Miskosky
In June and July, moose gather around mineral licks, usually low-lying areas of stagnant, mineral-rich water. At that season, when they feed heavily on leaves and other lush plant growth, they seem to require the supplementary minerals that the salt licks provide. This particularly important to bull moose as a mineral rich diet is required to grow these enormous antlers. Moose drift to the willow-rich valleys or other areas where good forage exists close to forest cover.
During the winter months, moose live almost solely on twigs and shrubs such as balsam fir, poplar, red osier dogwood, birch, and red willow tips. Winter is a time of hunger for moose. They restrict their food intake and limit their activity to save energy. When food becomes scarce, as it often does toward spring, moose will strip bark from trees, especially poplars. They will often stand on their hind legs and break off the tops of young aspens and birch.
Before human settlement, the large supplies of woody twigs needed by moose were provided by young forest re-growth in the wake of forest fires. Now that wildfire has been largely controlled, the moose’s source of food is often areas that are growing again after clear-cut logging. Moose do seem to migrate to the smorgasbord provided by the clear cuts in early November, especially those cuts in their fourth or fifth year of re-growth.
Where predation and hunting are limited, moose numbers may increase to the point where food is inadequate. Under these conditions, many animals starve while all are malnourished and more likely to be killed by predators or disease. Concentrations of up to 135 animals per 10 km2 have been seen in Wells Grey Provincial Park in British Columbia.
Deer, elk, rabbits, and even beaver compete with the moose for food.
The breeding season, or rut, begins in mid-September. Moose sometimes take more than one mate, but usually a bull stays with a particular cow for as long as it will take for the cow to complete her estrus cycle and be bred. The bull will then begin searching for his next girlfriend.
A good food supply improves breeding success. On good range, such as the parkland areas, more than 90 percent of the cows become pregnant and up to 30 percent bear twins. Very rarely, triplets are observed. However, when the food supply is poor, rates of pregnancy can drop to 50 percent, and the twinning rate spirals to almost to zero. An example of this would be the far northern boreal zones where birth rates are the lowest.
At birth a calf moose is a tiny, ungainly copy of its mother. If it is one of twins it may only weigh 6 kg; if born singly, between 11 and 16 kg.
|Black bears and grizzly bears are known to prey heavily on moose calves in the spring. - photo Rob Miskosky
Calves are helpless at birth. The mother keeps them in seclusion for a couple of days, hidden from their many enemies in a thicket or on an island.
Of all North American big-game animals, the moose calf gains weight the fastest. During the first month after birth it may gain more than half a kilogram a day and later in the summer may begin to put on more than 2 kg a day for a time. At the age of only a few days a calf can outrun a human and swim readily.
Calves stay with the cow until she calves again the following spring. At that time she drives off her yearling(s)—no doubt a difficult experience for the "teenage" moose.
Bears and wolves prey on moose. Black and grizzly bears have been known to prey heavily on moose calves during the first few weeks of life, and grizzly bears can easily kill adult moose. It is estimated that bears take up to 50% of new borne calves (in a good year) in Alberta.
Moose are largely solitary animals, but may associate in small groups most of the year. Migrating up and down mountain slopes seasonally, moose may herd or 'yard-up' during deep winter. Together they pack down snow to move around at lower elevations.
In spite of its huge size and ungainly appearance, an adult moose can run through a forest at speeds up to forty kilometres per hour. Its legs are long, allowing the moose to stand in shallow water or move easily through a metre of fresh snow. When it does run, it lifts each leg straight up, making its gait almost comical. But the weird leg action has its purpose; it allows the animal to lift its leg easily out of a muddy lake or stream bottom. Their walking stride is 1.1 to 2 metres, but it lengthens to near three metres when they trot or run. Good swimmers, moose can move through water at speeds of 10 kph for up to 2 hours.
Moose challenges & enemies
Throughout most wolf range in Canada, moose are the principal prey of wolves. Wolves kill many calves and take adult moose all year. Hunting healthy adult moose is a difficult and often dangerous business for wolves. The flailing hooves of a cornered moose frequently cause broken bones and even death, and only about one confrontation in 12 ends with the wolves successfully killing a moose. In winter, wolves usually hunt in packs. In deep crusted snow, or on smooth ice, a pack can easily bring down a moose. They usually run up beside their quarry and rip the tender flanks and hind legs until the moose is weakened from loss of blood.
Wolverines also prey on moose calves occasionally. Where they coexist with moose, cougars take a substantial number of moose calves and yearlings. As mentioned previously, bears take their fair share of moose, both young and old. Very few moose die of old age.
|Moose with tick infestation. - photo Rob Miskosky
Ticks are common on moose, especially in late winter, and may weaken animals seriously both by sucking blood and by causing the affected moose to rub off much of its hair, causing substantial heat loss. Internal parasites such as the hydatid—a tiny tapeworm—affect moose, especially when lack of forage and a heavy tick infestation lower their resistance.
Moose measles (Taenia Krabbei) is by far the most spread parasite (tapeworm) found in Alberta. It is usually found as little white cysts all through the meat tissue, but is of no harm to humans.
Another serious parasitic disease of moose is caused by the meningeal worm, so called because it attacks the meninges, or membranes, surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Meningeal worm is a parasite of white-tailed deer, which are adapted to it. However, in moose it is deadly and there is a long history of moose dying in regions where the two species overlap. This disease is of low occurrence in Alberta.
Giant liver flukes are mainly found in southern Alberta moose, in the foothills and mountains south of the North Saskatchewan River. Giant liver flukes do not live in humans and do not affect the meat in any way, although it can cause severe lesions of the (host moose) liver.
Moose are an important economic resource in Alberta. Moose hunting generates over $500 million in economic activity annually in Canada and provides large amounts of food for aboriginal and other rural people. Moose are a major element in the complex of wildlife attractions that draw visitors to parks and other protected wildlands.
|Moose populations must be kept to numbers appropriate to their food supply.
- photo Gord Trenholm
Populations must be kept within the limits set by the food supply to prevent starvation, disease, and serious damage to vegetation. Foresters in areas that are overpopulated by moose find that the regeneration of forest trees is harmed significantly. This may seriously reduce future timber crops as well as the breeding habitat of songbirds that nest in deciduous shrubs.
Moose respond well to management of their habitat by logging or controlled burning if these activities maintain a diversity of open areas and patches of larger trees for cover. Today, moose management in Alberta is soundly based on aerial counts, habitat inventories, and scientific studies of reproductive rates and calf survival. Moose have adapted well to human activities, and with appropriate management, they will always be part of the Alberta scenery.
How Big Is a Moose?
A mature bull moose of the subspecies Alces alces Anderson, found in Alberta and commonly called the Canadian moose, stands 2 ½ metres tall at the shoulders, with the tip of a mature rack towering 11 feet from the ground. The adult moose measures just over 3 metres long from the end of its nose to the tip of its tail. The average mature Canadian bull weighs from about 500 to 600 kilograms, and big northern mature bull moose can weigh as much as 700 kg or more. Cow moose are almost as large in frame as the males but they generally weigh less.
Do Moose Talk To Each Other?
Moose grunt to each other in a low-pitched, "uunnhhh", a grunt made by both bulls and cows. It means different things depending upon who says it, when they say it, and how. Moose photographers and hunters can benefit by knowing the sounds moose make to each other. Some might even want to try to bring moose closer by imitating their calls. Only those who really know moose behaviour should ever consider this, as it may result in a far closer encounter than wished for!
|A healthy cow moose. - photo Gord Trenholm
Mother moose grunt a variety of messages to their calves. If you ever observe a cow moose grunt different messages to her calf, you'll be amazed at how well the little moose calf understands. Mature bulls generally don't vocalize much until the fall mating season. Then they grunt either as a greeting or as a signal that they're looking for a mate. During the peak of the rut, bull moose become very vocal as they prowl the woods. Cow moose moan a "weeaahhhoowww" wail during the rut. It's a signal that a young bull is usually irritating her and a definite signal to mature bull moose in the area that she is approaching estrus and soon willing to mate. Simulating this call can really attract the attention of an amorous and/or rambunctious bull. If you try it, be sure to either have a rifle and tag, or a climbable tree handy!
All moose possess a distinct alarm bark, often more resembling the growl of a bear. This alarm call is used when a moose has come across unfamiliar scents or sounds. It is fair to say that you will always remember the sound of a moose alarm call once you have heard one at close range!
Why don’t bull moose in rut eat?
Reduced forage intake by males is generally believed to coincide with the peak of rutting activities in many ungulates. Time spent feeding by bull moose begins to decrease in early September: large bulls completely cease feeding for approximately 2 weeks, primarily in the third and fourth week of September. Smaller bulls feed at reduced rates, but do not cease feeding. Although large bulls spend large amounts of time engaged in social behaviour during the period of appetite suppression, much of their active time is also spent standing inattentive, engaged in little or no activity, suggesting that a constraint in time does not limit opportunities to feed. Forage intake reduction is more likely mediated through a physiological mechanism. Feeding cessation does not necessarily coincide with the peak of the rut. In high density areas, feeding cessation is significantly earlier than the height of breeding behaviour and fighting. The timing of feeding cessation coincides more with that of scent-urination, suggesting that appetite suppression may be a by product of physiological processes associated with chemical communication.
Moose escapes & evasive details
Recent quantitative studies in northern states of the USA found that larger groups of moose made fewer stops between being disturbed and settling down, and that larger groups exhibited a longer path length before quieting. Age had no significant impact (a potential measure of survival rate) on escape behaviour. The escape path of males was significantly longer than females even though the linear distance from the site of disturbance to the location where the moose settled down was not significantly different between the sexes. Overall, the escape path of males from the site of disturbance to where they settled down was significantly more tortuous than that of females. Although males are the preferred prey of hunters, the differences in escape behaviour between the sexes also may contribute to why males are more frequently killed by hunters. Thus, in areas with heavy hunting pressure, hunters may be acting as a selective force that favours animals that immediately run away after disturbance by humans.
Good facts to know when hunting.