The species Alces alces is called the moose by North Americans (a name derived from Eastern Abenaki moz) or the elk by Europeans. Alces alces is the largest existing member of the deer family Cervidae, distinguished from the others by the palmate antlers of its males. These antlers are unique in shape, having a more cup-like shape as opposed to the common twig-like figuration of others in the deer family. It should be noted that in North America, the name elk is given to the second largest species of deer - an animal also called the wapiti.
Traditionally the moose has been regarded as a single species, Alces alces, with several subspecies. Some recent sources, however, have promoted the North American race to be a fully separate species, Alces americanus, most notably Boyeskorov (1999). Most moose are grey or brown colored.
Habitat and range
Moose are typical of boreal and mixed deciduous forests of the Northern Hemisphere in temperate to sub arctic climates. In North America, that includes almost all of Canada, Alaska, much of New England, the upper Rocky Mountains, Northeastern Minnesota, and Michigan's Upper Peninsula and Isle Royale in Lake Superior. Small but present moose populations have been verified as far south as the mountains of Colorado. Moose have been successfully introduced on the island of Newfoundland in 1904 where they are now the dominant ungulate, and somewhat less successfully on Anticosti Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Ten moose were also introduced in Fiordland, New Zealand in 1910, but they were thought to have died off. Nevertheless, there have been reported sightings that were thought to be false until moose hair samples were found by a New Zealand scientist in 2002.
The male moose's antlers arise as cylindrical beams projecting on each side at right angles to the middle line of the skull, which after a short distance divide in a fork-like manner. The lower prong of this fork may be either simple, or divided into two or three tines, with some flattening.
In the North Siberian race of the elk (Alces alces bedfordiae) the posterior division of the main fork divides into three tines, with no distinct flattening. In the common elk (Alces alces alces), on the other hand, this branch usually expands into a broad palmation, with one large tine at the base, and a number of smaller snags on the free border.
There is, however, a Scandinavian breed of the common elk in which the antlers are simpler, and recall those of the East Siberian race.
The palmation appears to be more marked in the North American race, the moose (Alces alces americanus) than in the typical Scandinavian elk. The largest of all is the Alaskan race (Alces alces gigas), which can stand over 2 m (6.5 ft) in height, with a span across the antlers of 1.8 m (6 ft).
The male moose will drop its antlers after mating season in order to conserve energy for the winter season. It will then re-grow them in the spring. The antlers take about three to five months to grow. This makes their antlers one of the fastest growing organs in the world. The antlers initially have a layer of skin, which will shed off once fully grown.
If a bull moose is ever castrated (either due to accidental or chemical means) he will quickly shed his current set of antlers and then immediately begin to grow a new set of misshapen and deformed antlers that he will wear the rest of his life without ever shedding again. The distinctive looking appendages (often referred to as "devil's antlers") are the source of several myths and legends among many groups of Inuit as well as several other tribes of indigenous peoples of North America.
The great length of the legs gives the moose a decidedly lanky appearance. The muzzle is long and fleshy, with only a very small triangular naked patch below the nostrils. Males have a peculiar sac, known as a bell, hanging from the neck. Moose eat mostly young shoots and leaves of willow and birch, tree bark and mast (the fallen nuts of forest trees) in winter, and water plants (such as Arnicus brucitus). These ruminants are often found feeding in wetlands and swamps. Moose are extremely strong swimmers and are known to dive underwater in lakes and ponds in order to pull up plants from the bottom. They are able to stay under water for a full minute before coming up for air. Their teeth resemble those of other ruminants such as deer, cows, sheep and goats. On each side of the lower jaw they have premolars and four front teeth, one of which is a transformed canine. In the upper jaw there are no front teeth, only a plate of horn against which the food is chewed. The usual stride of a moose is a shambling trot but, when pressed, they can break into a gallop and reach speeds of up to 55 km/h (34 mph).
Male moose (bulls) normally weigh 540 to 720 kg (1200–1600 lbs) and females (cows) usually about 400 kg (880 lb). The typical height is about 1.9 meters (6.2 feet) at the shoulder. Calves weigh around 15 kg (33 lb) at birth but quickly grow in size. Only males have antlers, often 160 cm (64 inches) across and 20 kg (44 lb) in weight with a broad, flattened palmate shape fringed in up to 30 tines. An Alaskan moose discovered in 1897 holds the record for the largest known modern deer; it was a male standing 2.34 m (7.7 feet) at the shoulders and weighing 825 kg. Its antler spread was 199 cm (79 inches).
European rock drawings and cave paintings reveal that the elk or moose has been hunted since the stone age. Excavations in Alby, Sweden adjacent to the Stora Alvaret have yielded elk antlers in wooden hut remains from 6000 BC, indicating some of the earliest elk hunting in northern Europe. In Northern Scandinavia one can still find remains of trapping pits used for hunting elk. These pits, which can be up to 4 x 7 m wide and 2 m deep, would have been camouflaged with branches and leaves. They would have had steep sides lined with planks, making it impossible for the elk to escape once it fell in. The pits are normally found in large groups, crossing the elk's regular paths and stretching over several kilometres. Remains of wooden fences designed to guide the animals toward the pits have been found in bogs and peats. In Norway, an early example of these trapping devices has been dated to around 3700 BC. Trapping elk in pits is an extremely effective hunting method, and as early as the 16th century the Norwegian government tried to restrict their use. Nevertheless, the method was in use until the 19th century.
The first written description of the elk is in Julius Cæsar's Commentarii de Bello Gallico, where it is described thus:
"There are also animals which are called alces. The shape of these, and the varied color of their skins, is much like roes, but in size they surpass them a little and are without horns, and have legs without joints and ligatures; nor do they lie down for the purpose of rest, nor, if they have been thrown down by any accident, can they raise or lift themselves up. Trees serve as beds to them; they lean themselves against them, and thus reclining only slightly, they take their rest; when the huntsmen have discovered from the footsteps of these animals whither they are accustomed to betake themselves, they either undermine all the trees at the roots, or cut into them so far that the upper part of the trees may appear to be left standing. When they have leant upon them, according to their habit, they knock down by their weight the unsupported trees, and fall down themselves along with them."
In chapter 16 of Pliny the Elder's Natural History from 77 AD the elk and an animal called achlis, which is presumably the same animal, are described thus:
"...there is, also, the elk, which strongly resembles our steers, except that it is distinguished by the length of the ears and of the neck. There is also the achlis, which is produced in the island of Scandinavia; it has never been seen in this city, although we have had descriptions of it from many persons; it is not unlike the elk, but has no joints in the hind leg. Hence, it never lies down, but reclines against a tree while it sleeps; it can only be taken by previously cutting into the tree, and thus laying a trap for it, as otherwise, it would escape through its swiftness. Its upper lip is so extremely large, for which reason it is obliged to go backwards when grazing; otherwise, by moving onwards, the lip would get doubled up."
Dr. Valerius Geist, who emigrated to Canada from the Soviet Union wrote in his book Moose: Behavior, Ecology, Conservation (published in 1999 by Voyageur Press of Stillwater, MN):
"Those who care most passionately about moose are - paradoxically - hunters, in particular people who live in wilderness and rural communities and those who depend on moose for food. In Sweden, no fall menu is without a mouthwatering moose dish. The Swedes fence their highways to reduce moose fatalities and design moose-proof cars. Sweden is less than half as large as the Canadian province of British Columbia, but the annual take of moose in Sweden - upward of 150,000 - is twice that of the total moose harvest in North America. That is how much Swedes cherish their moose."
Domestication of moose was investigated in the Soviet Union before World War II. Early experiments were inconclusive, but with the creation of a moose farm at Pechora-Ilych Nature Reserve in 1949 a small-scale moose domestication program was started, involving attempts at selective breeding of animals based on their behavioral characteristics. Since 1963, the program has continued at Kostroma Moose Farm, which had a herd of 33 tame moose as of 2003. Although at this stage the farm is not expected to be a profit-making enterprise, it obtains some income from the sale of moose milk and from visiting tour groups. Its main value, however, is seen in the opportunities it offers for the research in the physiology and behavior of the moose, as well as in the insights it provides into the general principles of animal domestication.
Vehicle collisions and moose warning signs
A moose's body structure, with a large heavy body suspended on long spindly legs, makes these animals particularly dangerous when hit by motor vehicles. Such collisions are often fatal for both the moose and motorist. This has led to the development of a vehicle test in Scandinavia referred to as the "moose test" (Älgtest in Swedish, Elch Test in German). The term was invented by the Swedish motor magazine "Teknikens värld" for a test where the tested car needs to make a sharp S-turn at high speed. The term "moose test" came to common knowledge when Mercedes A-klasse badly failed the test and turned over. German reporters didn't see the relevance of the test, and the testers replied that that kind of maneuver was important when trying to avoid collisions with moose. The test was not referred to as moose test in Sweden prior to this incident, but simply as an evasion maneuver test, intended to test the car's ability to perform an evasive maneuver to avoid colliding with any obstacle suddenly occurring on the road. However, since the Swedish journalist talking to the German press didn't know what "evasive maneuver test" would be called in German, he simply called it "Elch test" - which quickly spread in German media and then stuck. Generally, upon impact the bumper of the car will break the moose's legs. The main body of the moose will then collide with the windshield, often with disastrous effect to both motorist and animal. In a collision of this nature, a car's airbags may not deploy or be of much use if they do.
Moose warning signs are used on roads in regions where there is a danger of collision with the animal. The triangular warning signs common in Sweden, Norway and Finland have become coveted souvenirs among the many German tourists traveling in these countries, and authorities have had to issue warnings that it is a dangerous and criminal practice to remove one of these signs. The popularity of these signs has led to them being depicted on all kinds of souvenirs, such as coffee mugs, neckties or T-shirts, and full-size copies of the actual signs may be bought. In the mid 1990s, the Swedish postal service issued a triangular stamp with a moose warning sign, intended to cater especially to German tourists writing postcards home. The brand Ahlgrens bilar ("Ahlgren's Cars"), a popular confectionery product which has been on the market since 1953, has in recent years been extended to other car- and road-related products, one of which, depicting Swedish road signs, includes a candy moose warning sign.
In the Canadian province of New Brunswick, collisions with moose are frequent enough that all new highways have fences to prevent moose from accessing the road, similar to how it has long been done in Sweden. Demonstratively, Highway 7 between Fredericton and Saint John, which has one of the highest incidences of moose collisions in the province, does not have these fences, although it is extremely well signed.
- Kingdom: Animalia
- Phylum: Chordata
- Class: Mammalia
- Order: Artiodactyla
- Family: Cervidae
- Subfamily: Odocoilinae
- Genus: Alces
- Gray, 1821
- Species: A. alces
Alces alces (Linnaeus, 1758)
Moose range map