“THE moose is singularly grotesque and awkward to look at. Why should it stand so high at the shoulders? Why have so long a head?” The 19th-century writer of those words, Henry David Thoreau, was hardly alone in his appraisal of the moose. Its comical appearance and the rarity of sightings of this solitary creature in the wild have fueled speculation that the moose is clumsy and slow-witted. Is that true? Researchers in North America and Eurasia have uncovered many facts about this unusual animal.
No one denies that the moose is a giant. Although this “monarch of the forest” has long legs that make it seem ungainly, those legs can fend off an entire pack of wolves. Moose learn to swim within days of birth, and they have been observed swimming for miles and diving to a depth of nearly 20 feet (6 m) to feed on water plants!
A moose can move its eyes and detect motion almost directly behind it without turning its head. Its nose is also an effective tool. Researchers suggest that because the moose’s nostrils are far apart, they may give it the unusual ability to pinpoint the location of objects on a three-dimensional scale. The moose’s hearing adds another ingredient to its sensory package. Its ears can pivot in all directions, and they can pick up sounds from other moose as far as two miles (3 km) away!
Moose calves, described by one writer as “ridiculously cute,” tend to be curious and carefree. Their mothers, called cows, protect them by providing tender and loyal care. Cows will attack any who prey on their young, including wolves, bears, and even humans. Finally, when the calf is about a year old and its mother is newly pregnant, the mother aggressively drives it away so that the yearling can begin caring for itself.
SURVIVAL IN THE NORTH
Since moose feed exclusively on plants, how do they survive cold winters? Partly by gorging themselves during warmer weather. Moose eat up to 50 pounds (23 kg) of forage daily, whether this vegetation is grown ten feet (3 m) above the ground or underwater. They make the most of this food by digesting it in a four-chambered stomach, extracting needed nutrients and building up fat. The moose, however, faces other dangers in winter.
Bitter cold and deep snow test a moose’s endurance. It favors a quiet life in the winter, economizing movement and retaining heat under its well-designed fur coat. Escape from wolves in the snow is especially difficult, but often, an even greater hazard to the moose is man—especially hunters and automobile drivers.
Moose love the concentrated nutrients found in road salt, which is spread on many northern highways to melt snow. However, because moose have dark fur and tend to cross roads after sunset, drivers have difficulty spotting them in time to avoid collisions. Both humans and moose have lost their lives because of this.
A PLAYFUL BEAST
Moose have been observed playfully attacking ocean waves and blissfully bathing in hot springs. There is tenderness evident between cows and bulls during the rut, and a cow’s loyalty to her calf is truly heartwarming. Calves adopted by humans have even formed maternal bonds with their keepers. Dr. Valerius Geist observes: “This strange animal with the ungainly face can be quick witted, affectionate, and loyal to a fault.”
A word of caution, though: The moose is a very strong and powerful wild animal. If you happen to see one in the wild, be respectful and give it plenty of space. Keeping your distance is especially vital when there are young calves nearby. Be assured, however, that even from a safe distance, you will be amazed while gazing at this peculiar giant of the forest.