A moose spotted in the wild

It is the beginning of May, and I’m bundled up in three layers of shirts under a winter jacket. My hair is tucked under a thick, wool cap, my feet fit snugly into mismatched black snow boots, and I am still struggling to free my fingers from a warm pair of gloves. Our car has the heat blasting, the radio blaring, and thermoses of half-consumed hot coffee lodged in every cup holder. Through the window, I stare at a mountainside blanketed in snow, firs poking up from the ground like candles in a cake. It is the beginning of May, and I am about to see my first moose.

Our caravan’s main purpose is not, in fact, moose-spotting. As part of a field ecology course at Washington State University, we are characterizing community types throughout Washington, mainly by examining vegetation. As a graduate student who studies plant invasion, I will be the first to admit that plants are awesome and often underappreciated members of an ecosystem. However, I will also confess that as we pull over and my advisor points animatedly to the open patch on the other side of the road, no one is gawking at the trees.

These Moose were Made for Walking (and Swimming!)

Our moose is female. She is smaller than a male bull, and lacks his characteristic antlers, which can span up to 6 feet. I later learn that the number of points per antler depends on health and age; after approximately five years, the forked antlers of young males develop into the palmate spread associated with the species. She watches us cautiously for a few moments before returning to forging. Tall shrubs, grasses, and pinecones are all on the menu until food becomes more plentiful. Her strong hooves can also scrape snow from the ground, exposing moss and lichen for consumption.

 

The Breakdown: Horns vs Antlers

Horns

Antlers

Unforked

Forked

Permanent

Shed annually

Family Bovidae (Bovids)

Family Cervidae (Deer Family)

Often found on males and females

Only found on males (except caribou)

 

Though her hooves are helpful for finding food, they serve many other functions as well. On land they act as snowshoes, allowing her to navigate even soft snow, and in the water they transform into effective paddles—moose can swim for several miles at a time and even be completely submerged for up to 30 seconds. Our moose moves leisurely now, but, if prompted, she could reach a top speed of 35 miles per hour. As my friend Angela pulls out her camera, another student excitedly exclaims, “I think there’s another one!”

Another moose sighting likely signifies one thing: a calf. Excluding cows and their calves, moose are solitary creatures, who come together only to mate in September and October. Females are attracted to a male bull’s loud bellowing, and competing males may clash with antlers. Females give birth to a single calf (or rarely twins) when spring arrives. Indeed, our group spots a gangly young moose half-hidden behind a tree. She is even more wary than her mother, and has yet to reach her full size of between 600 and 800 pounds. Mother and daughter will stay together until the next mating season, when yearlings are often chased off so that another baby can be born.

Do Not Mess with a Moose

Our discovery is undeniably exhilarating; however, the presence of a mother and her calf warrants extra caution. Moose can be aggressive, especially if a mother feels her calf is threatened. Our group remains on the other side of the road, making sure to give the pair enough space. Other tips for a safe moose encounter like ours include:

  • Avoiding hiking and camping with dogs in moose country (moose have been known to attack dogs due to their resemblance to wolves)
  • Yielding to moose on the road while driving (attempting to move the moose may provoke it)
  • Never feeding a moose
  • Watching for signs of aggression (stomping, swinging head, raised hair on shoulders, ears flattened)
  • Running if under attack (unlike predators such as cougars, moose are unlikely to chase you far, and you can move around obstacles faster)
  • If knocked down, curling up, covering your head, and staying still is best until moose moves on (movement can trigger another attack)

 

References

About Lauren Kelly

Lauren Kelly has written 1 post in this blog.

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