Alces alcesEurasian elk(Also: Eurasian moose)

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Geographic Range

Alces alces, commonly called moose in North America and Eurasian elk in Europe, have a circumpolar distribution in the boreal forests of the Northern Hemisphere. (Eurasian elk should not be confused with North American elk, Cervus canadensis, which are a different species.) In Eurasia, Alces alces have a range on the west from Scandinavia, Poland and southern Czech Republic to Siberia (Russia) in the east. Its southern range extends to Ukraine, northern Kazakhstan, northern China and northern Mongolia. In North America, moose are found throughout much of Alaska and Canada and just south of the border between the contiguous United States and Canada, but extend farther southward down the Rocky Mountains to Utah and Colorado. Factors that likely limit their northern distribution are sufficient forage and snow depths greater than 70 cm for long periods. Warm climates that have temperatures above 27 C for long periods likely limit their southern distribution. (Grubb, 2005; Karns, 2007; Kelsall and Tefler, 1974)

Habitat

Moose can be found in a range of habitats in the cold, northern regions of the globe that have seasonal snow cover. They inhabit the taiga and temperate forest biomes, including the tundra-subalpine zone. Forest types include boreal, broadleaf and mixed (coniferous-deciduous). Within these forests, they prefer the early successional stage, where forage is in abundance due to disturbance. Fire, logging, flooding, or glacial action greatly increase the quality and quantity of forage for moose and, ultimately, moose density. Besides forested habitats, moose will seek out areas near water, such as ponds, lakes, rivers and swamps, which also have a concentration of their favorite foods. Their large bodies, inability to sweat, and the heat produced by fermentation in their guts mean they cannot tolerate temperatures exceeding 27 degrees Celsius for long. (Bowyer, et al., 2003; Peek, 2007)

  • Aquatic Biomes
  • lakes and ponds
  • rivers and streams

Physical Description

Moose are the largest species in the deer family, having long, slender legs that support a massive body, while a short, thick neck and humped shoulders that support a large head. This horse-size species can be as tall as 2.3 m at the shoulders with long ears (250 mm) and an inconspicuous tail (80 to 120 mm). One of the most distinctive features of this species is its long, bulbous, drooping muzzle. The upper lip overhangs the lower lip and between its nostrils is a triangular patch of bare skin. Under the neck hangs a flap of furred skin called the bell, which may or may not be present in females. With no upper incisors or canines, moose must nip off plants between a bony upper palate and their lower incisors. They have a dental formula of I 0/3, C 0/1, P 3/3, M 3/3 = 32. (Bubenik, 2007; Wilson and Ruff, 1999)

Males are distinguished by carrying the largest antlers of any mammal, which can weigh as much as 35 kg in North American moose. Antlers are grown in the spring and shed in the winter each year. The widest antler spread recorded is 2048 mm. Antlers of North American moose are palmate, having a main palm and brow palm in a butterfly configuration. A cervine-shape, without palmation, is more common in European moose (Alces alces alces) and Manchurian moose (A. a. cameloides). (Bubenik, 2007; Engan, 2001; Novak, 1999)

Moose are sexually dimorphic, with males being more than 40% heavier than females. Live weights of males range from 360 to 600 kg with lengths from 2.4 to 3.1 m. Females range from 270 to 400 kg with lengths 2.3 to 3.0 m. The largest subspecies of moose, Alces alces gigas, occurs in Alaska with a maximum weight of 771 kg for a male and 573 kg for a female. (Bowyer, et al., 2003; Bubenik, 2007)

Pelage is generally dark, black to brown or grayish brown, with the lower legs being lighter. An all-white color phase is rare. Their underfur and long guard hairs provide excellent insulation from cold. Young have a reddish brown pelage and are not spotted like other young in the deer family. Individual hairs are 15 to 25 cm long and hollow, resulting in excellent insulation. (Novak, 1999)

  • Range mass
    270 to 771 kg
    594.71 to 1698.24 lb
  • Range length
    2.3 to 3.1 m
    7.55 to 10.17 ft

Reproduction

Moose are polygynous. Males and females attract each other by making vocalizations and scent marking trees. Moose exhibit two different types of breeding strategies: tundra moose in Alaska form harems and taiga moose form transient pair bonds. In the harem mating system, the largest, most dominant male attempts to herd a group of females together, which he defends from all other males. Other bulls challenge the harem master for the right to mate. Young bulls with smaller antlers typically retreat from the dominant bull, whereas evenly sized bulls will fight. Bulls will engage their antlers, pushing and twisting, while attempting to gore each other. In the pair bonding system, a dominant bull stays with and defends just one cow until he can mate with her. Afterward, he searches for other females who have not yet been bred by other bulls. (Bowyer, et al., 2003; Schwartz and Hundertmark, 1993; Hundertmark, et al., 2002; Schwartz, 1992; Schwartz, 2007)

Moose breed in September and October of each year. The female estrous cycle lasts 24 to 25 days, with the length of the heat being 15 to 26 hours. If the female is not bred within this time, she will recycle through estrus in about three weeks. Gestation averages about 231 days with cows giving birth to one calf on average, although twins are common. Calves are born at an average weight of 16.2 kg and gain approximately 1 kg per day while they are nursing. Males and females are sexually mature at two years of age but full growth potential isn't reached until 4 or 5 years of age. At that age females are at their reproductive peak and males have the largest antlers. (Franzmann, 1981; Schwartz and Hundertmark, 1993; Hundertmark, et al., 2002; Schwartz, 1992; Schwartz, 2007)

  • Breeding interval
    Moose breed annually.
  • Breeding season
    Breeding occurs in September and October.
  • Range number of offspring
    1 to 2
  • Average number of offspring
    1
  • Average gestation period
    231 days
  • Average weaning age
    5 months
  • Average time to independence
    1 years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    16 to 28 months
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    2 to 5 years

Only females take care of their young for a period of one year. Females seek secluded sites to give birth to young and remain isolated until the calves are weaned. Calves can browse and follow their mother at 3 weeks old and are weaned at 5 months. They remain with their mother until about 1 year after their birth, when the mother's next young is born. (Franzmann, 1981; Schwartz and Hundertmark, 1993; Hundertmark, et al., 2002; Schwartz, 1992; Schwartz, 2007)

  • Parental Investment
  • precocial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • protecting
      • female
  • inherits maternal/paternal territory
  • maternal position in the dominance hierarchy affects status of young

Lifespan/Longevity

Many calves, as much as 50% or more, do not live beyond their first six weeks of life due to predation by bears and wolves. Once they reach adulthood, their chances of survival are high. Adult females have an average survival of 95%. Male survival is more variable due to hunting and male-male competition. Adult moose are in their prime from 5 to 12 years of age but begin to suffer from arthritis, dental diseases and wear, and other factors after about 8 years. Few moose live past 15 years in the wild, although one cow was recorded to have lived to the age of 22. Peak reproductive age in females is 4 to 12 years of age and 4 to 8 years in males. (Bowyer, et al., 2003; Gaillard, et al., 1998; Wilson and Ruff, 1999)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    22 (high) years
  • Typical lifespan
    Status: wild
    8 to 15 years

Behavior

Moose are the least social species among cervids, remaining fairly solitary except during the mating season. They are not territorial. Outside of the rutting period, males and females are sexually segregated: males and females are separated spatially, temporally, and/or by habitat. It has been hypothesized that this is due to the differences in nutritional needs of the sexes due to body size differences. Also, cows with calves at heel seclude themselves from conspecifics to reduce the risk of being singled out by predators. Moose are crepuscular by nature, being most active at sunrise and sunset. Despite their ungainly appearance, moose are able to run silently through dense forests. Maximum speeds have been clocked at 56 km/hr and sustained speeds at 9.6 km/hr. Moose are also strong swimmers, being known to swim up to 20 km or up to 9.5 km per hour. Most of their time centers around feeding. The daily pattern is traveling to a new site to feed, avoiding predators, browsing on plants, standing, and lying down for the rumination of their food. Moose mainly stay in the same general area, though some populations migrate between sites favorable at different times of the year. These migrations can exceed 300km in European populations. (Boyer, 2004; Bubenik, 2007; Wilson and Ruff, 1999)

Home Range

Home range size of moose varies between 3.6 to 92 km2. During their first year of life, young moose occupy the same home range as their mother and do not establish their own home range until the age of two. Home range size of males tend to be larger than females. Some moose migrate seasonally, up to 179 km in North America and 300 km in northeastern Europe. (Hundertmark, 2007; LeResche, 1974; Pulliainen, 1974)

Communication and Perception

Moose are not as vocal as other members of the deer family, such as elk (Cervus elaphus). Most of their vocalizations occur during the rut. Females make a long, quavering moaning call when in estrus, which attracts males and can be heard up to 3.2 km away. Males make a grunt to court females or challenge other bulls. Both sexes are capable of making a loud, guttural “roaring” sound as a threat. Moose will also communicate chemically by scent-marking trees. They strip trees and shrubs of their bark and rub their foreheads and preorbital glands into the bare spot to advertise their presence to the opposite sex. Moose are not known to have good eye sight. Confirmation of this is not available due to a lack of studies, although it is known that they depend less on sight than their sense of hearing or smell. Moose have very acute hearing due in part to the large external surface area of their ears. Their ears are capable of rotating independently, giving them stereophonic hearing. Their sense of smell is exceptional due to the large surface area of their nasal cavities, which are lined with millions of sent-smelling cells. (Bowyer, et al., 2003; Bubenik, 2007; Franzmann, 1981)

Food Habits

The word “moose” comes from the Native American tribe, the Algonquins, which means “twig eater” in their language. It is an appropriate name because moose primarily browse upon the stems and twigs of woody plants in the winter and the leaves and shoots of deciduous plants in the summer. For moose in Poland, 87% of their diet consisted of trees and shrubs with the most important species being pine (Pinus silvestris), which represented 52% of their diet. In North America, moose have been observed to consume as many as 221 plant species and genera, and in Russia 355, although only a select few comprise a significant portion of their diet. Willows (Salix spp.) are the most preferred forage where available. In interior Alaska willows accounted for 94% of the biomass consumed in the winter. Other species that are consumed are paper birch (Betula papyrifera), quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides), and balsam fir (Abies balsamea). Moose also consume aquatic vegetation during the summer because it is highly digestible and abundant in some areas. An adult requires about 20 kg food per day. (Bowyer, et al., 2003; Franzmann, 1981; Renecker and Schwartz, 2007)

  • Plant Foods
  • leaves
  • wood, bark, or stems
  • flowers

Predation

Wolves, brown or grizzly bears, black bears, and cougars are major predators of moose, and to a lesser extent coyotes and Amur tigers. Major predators can have such an impact on moose populations that they can slow their population growth and hold them below the carrying capacity of the habitat. Whether or not predators can hold (regulate) a moose population at an equilibrium point is controversial. Predation by bears tends to be the highest in the spring when calves are the most vulnerable. Predation by wolves is higher in the winter when snow depths are high enough to impede the movement of moose. Moose aggressively defend themselves and their young with their robust antlers and sharp hooves. (Ballard and Van Ballenberghe, 2007; Bowyer, et al., 2003; Franzmann, 2000; Miquelle, et al., 1996)

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • cryptic

Ecosystem Roles

Moose can have a significant impact on ecosystems because of their daily activities of feeding, trampling, defecating, and urinating. One researcher estimated that the Swedish moose population contributed 300,000 metric tons of feces each year to the land. This equals about 5,600 tons of nitrogen, which is essential for plant growth. Moose can affect the rate of nutrient cycling, floral composition, rate of forest succession, and biological diversity of a forest. For this reason, they are considered to be a keystone species. (Kie, et al., 2003; Kielland and Bryant, 1998; Molvar, et al., 1993; Persson, et al., 2000)

Moose are affected by several diseases and parasites. "Moose disease", fatal to moose, is caused by a brainworm which most commonly infects white-tailed deer. Moose can become severely infested with winter ticks and death can sometimes result in winter as a result of blood loss and nutritional stress. (Wilson and Ruff, 1999)

Commensal/Parasitic Species

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Moose are hunted throughout much of their range and provide millions of pounds in meat to humans each year. In 1983, 152,000 moose were harvested in Sweden, representing 14% of the total meat consumption of the country. Moose hunting also generates a considerable amount of money to local economies. Moose hunters contribute $31 million annually to Alaska’s economy and $50 million to Canada’s. Moose also draw many tourists for wildlife viewing opportunities. Moose milk is harvested from captive moose in some areas, including Russia and Sweden. (Bowyer, et al., 2003; Novak, 1999; Regelin and Franzmann, 1998)

  • Positive Impacts
  • food
  • body parts are source of valuable material
  • ecotourism
  • produces fertilizer

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Vehicle collisions with moose are a serious problem in North America and Europe. In North America, nearly 3,000 occur each year. In Sweden alone, 4,500 occur per year on average, as well as 10 to 15 human fatalities. Beyond the incalculable cost in terms of human life, moose collisions cause significant property damage, escalate insurance premiums, can cause a local moose population to decline and reduce recreational opportunities. Moose can also be a pest to agriculture and forestry in some areas. Moose foraging can inhibit the growth of young trees. In Russia, damage to the forestry industry was estimated in millions of rubles, during the 1950's. (Child, 2007; Kuznetsov, 2002; Seiler, 2005)

  • Negative Impacts
  • injures humans
  • crop pest

Conservation Status

IUCN lists moose as a species of “Least Concern” because a majority of populations are expanding and extremely abundant despite heavy hunting pressure in parts of their range. The Eurasian populations are estimated to be 1.5 million individuals, one-third of which consists of the European populations. In 2002, populations of the United States and Canada were estimated at 1,000,000. Some exceptions to this favorable assessment are moose in Manchuria and Mongolia (A. a. cameloides), which are scarce, and a population in Nova Scotia (A. a. americana), which Canada has deemed endangered. (Geist, et al., 2008; Henttonen, et al., 2008; Novak, 1999; Timmermann, 2003)

Other Comments

Alces, which has been traditionally classified as a monotypic genus, has been recently divided into two species by some researchers: the European species, Alces alces, and the North American species, Alces americanus. Such a division has caused confusion and does not represent the latest genetic research. The division of moose into European and North American species was believed to be supported by morphological differences and evidence that European moose have 68 chromosomes and North American moose have 70. It is now known that moose in Central Asia (Yakutia) also have 70 chromosomes and share mitochondrial DNA halotypes with European and North American moose. Furthermore, moose exhibit low variability in mitochondrial DNA worldwide and have relatively low overall genetic diversity compared to other mammals. It is more likely that all extant lineages of moose originated from Central Asia within the last 60,000 years, supporting a single species hypothesis rather than a two or three species hypothesis. (Grubb, 2005; Hundertmark and Bowyer, 2004; Hundertmark, et al., 2002)

Contributors

Tanya Dewey (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Daniel De Bord (author), University of Alaska Fairbanks, Link Olson (editor, instructor), University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Glossary

Nearctic

living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map

Palearctic

living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

bog

a wetland area rich in accumulated plant material and with acidic soils surrounding a body of open water. Bogs have a flora dominated by sedges, heaths, and sphagnum.

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

crepuscular

active at dawn and dusk

cryptic

having markings, coloration, shapes, or other features that cause an animal to be camouflaged in its natural environment; being difficult to see or otherwise detect.

diurnal
  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
dominance hierarchies

ranking system or pecking order among members of a long-term social group, where dominance status affects access to resources or mates

ecotourism

humans benefit economically by promoting tourism that focuses on the appreciation of natural areas or animals. Ecotourism implies that there are existing programs that profit from the appreciation of natural areas or animals.

endothermic

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

fertilization

union of egg and spermatozoan

folivore

an animal that mainly eats leaves.

food

A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.

forest

forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.

herbivore

An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.

holarctic

a distribution that more or less circles the Arctic, so occurring in both the Nearctic and Palearctic biogeographic regions.

World Map

Found in northern North America and northern Europe or Asia.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

keystone species

a species whose presence or absence strongly affects populations of other species in that area such that the extirpation of the keystone species in an area will result in the ultimate extirpation of many more species in that area (Example: sea otter).

marsh

marshes are wetland areas often dominated by grasses and reeds.

migratory

makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

mountains

This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

pheromones

chemicals released into air or water that are detected by and responded to by other animals of the same species

polygynous

having more than one female as a mate at one time

riparian

Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

scent marks

communicates by producing scents from special gland(s) and placing them on a surface whether others can smell or taste them

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sedentary

remains in the same area

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

sexual ornamentation

one of the sexes (usually males) has special physical structures used in courting the other sex or fighting the same sex. For example: antlers, elongated tails, special spurs.

solitary

lives alone

swamp

a wetland area that may be permanently or intermittently covered in water, often dominated by woody vegetation.

tactile

uses touch to communicate

taiga

Coniferous or boreal forest, located in a band across northern North America, Europe, and Asia. This terrestrial biome also occurs at high elevations. Long, cold winters and short, wet summers. Few species of trees are present; these are primarily conifers that grow in dense stands with little undergrowth. Some deciduous trees also may be present.

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

tundra

A terrestrial biome with low, shrubby or mat-like vegetation found at extremely high latitudes or elevations, near the limit of plant growth. Soils usually subject to permafrost. Plant diversity is typically low and the growing season is short.

visual

uses sight to communicate

viviparous

reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.

young precocial

young are relatively well-developed when born

References

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