Having spent my childhood in the woods of northern Maine, I have long been familiar with moose. I have always found them to be intriguing, and my admiration for them has only grown as I have gotten older. They are massive, stoic creatures — gentle giants when they aren’t directly threatened or protecting their young. It is important to realize that the moose’s many curiosities aren’t novelties or mistakes, but adaptations that enable them to thrive in their environment. Three of these adaptations will be explained and their importance discussed in this paper.
The Moose, Alces alces, is a large even-toed ungulate of the cervidae (deer) family and artiodactyla order. They stand up to 6 feet tall at the shoulder, with dark brownish/blackish fur, long legs, a bell of skin and fur hanging from their neck, and large antlers (Geist, 2019). North American Moose populations spread throughout the boreal regions of Canada and the United States, from Alaska across Canada to Maine. The climate of these areas are characteristic of most boreal regions, with long cold winters and short cool summers (Hiltz et al., 2004). According to a study performed in British Columbia in 2004, moose habitats include areas close to water, shrublands, treeless wet meadows made up of mosses and herbs, coniferous and deciduous forests, and even areas characterized by human disturbance such as “cut areas, burned areas, and industrially disturbed areas in various stages of regeneration” (Hiltz et al., 2004). The study showed that while some habitats were preferred over others, there were noticeable differences in habitat preference among individual moose (Hiltz et al., 2004). This may be an indication that in general moose are adapted to their boreal environment to such a degree that individual moose can afford the luxury of unique sub habitat choice.
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The space use of moose has largely to do with food availability and predation. Moose are typically active throughout the day, especially dawn and dusk. Despite heightened behavior at dawn and dusk, Moose feeding periods are dispersed throughout the day, separated by 2-3 hour resting periods (Geist, 1963). Most moose tend to feed on trees and small plants, both or either of which can be found in each sub habitat listed above. According to an article published in 1981 titled “Plant Selection by a Generalist Herbivore: The Moose”, moose eat several parts of trees and small plants, including aquatic plants, forbs, deciduous leaves and twigs, and coniferous twigs. Interestingly, a study from Isle Royale National Park, Michigan showed that while leaves and twigs were chosen relative to their energy content, moose preferences for aquatic plants were largely correlated to their sodium concentrations (Bolevsky, 1981). The natural predators of moose include wolves, black bears, and brown bears. According to a study published in the Canadian Journal of Zoology in 1994, “In naturally regulated ecosystems, predation on moose by bears and wolves is often limiting and may be regulating” (Ballard and Ballenberghe, 1994). This is not surprising, considering the effects that predation can have on behavior and evolution throughout the animal kingdom.
In North America, four subspecies of moose are recognized: Alces alces americana (the eastern moose), Alces alces andersoni (the northwestern moose), Alces alces shirasi (the Shiras moose), and Alces alces gigas (the Alaskan moose). These subspecies are mostly differentiated by fur, antler shape, and size (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2019). These differences are probably adaptations to the environment of each subspecies’ respective region, a phenomenon that will be discussed in greater depth later in this paper. Moose belong to the family cervidae: the deer family, a group of 43 species of cud-chewing ungulates (even-toed hooves) with antler wearing mature males (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2019). The phylogeny of cervidae below shows that, other than A. alces pfitzmayeri and A. alces cameloides (two eastern subspecies of moose), Alces alces’ closest relatives are the roe deer and the water deer, two species found predominantly in Europe and Asia.
Figure 1: Phylogeny of Cervidae (Fickel et. al., 2004)
Tests of Adaptation:
As mentioned above, there are noticeable connections between space use and predation among moose. According to a study performed in Isle Royale, Michigan, there is evidence to suggest that mother moose with calves, when given the option, spend more time around human camps than away from human camps (Peterson and Stephens, 1984). I hypothesize that the proclivity for mother moose to spend more time around human camps than other areas is a behavioral adaptation to utilize human activity to avoid predation. To test this, I would isolate two groups of moose from the same region. This experiment would be most feasible if a fenced nature preserve was used, so that boundaries are known and temporary fences may be erected to facilitate the experiment. The control group would be exposed to the level of predation that is common in its region, and the experimental group would be isolated from predation. Human camps would then be set up among both groups. Over the course of several weeks, I would monitor the behavior of mother moose and their prefered proximity to the human camps. If the mother moose in the experimental group spent more time around human camps than away from them, the theory that the proposed behavior is due to predation would be disproven.
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As mentioned above, the four subspecies of North American moose are largely differentiated by size, fur, and antler shape, and these differences are likely adaptations to the specific environmental conditions of each subspecies’ respective region. I hypothesize that the differences in size, fur, and the characteristics of physical appendages between subspecies of Alces alces are morphological adaptations to thrive in the climate of each respective region. To test this, I would use the comparative approach, as well as an understanding of Bergmann’s rule and Allen’s rule. Bergmann’s rule states that within a broadly distributed species or taxonomic group, populations/species of larger size will be found in colder climates and those of smaller size will be found in colder climates (Freckleton et al., 2003). Allen’s rule states that animals adapted to colder climates will have shorter appendages and limbs than those adapted to warmer climates (Nudds and Oswald, 2007). I would sample populations of each subspecies and examine their size and fur. Then I would measure appendages and limbs such as ears and legs. Once I had acquired this data, I would acquire as much data as I could concerning the climate of each region. I would expect thicker fur, larger size, and shorter ears and limbs to be characteristic of those from colder regions, thinner fur, smaller size, and larger ears and limbs for warmer regions, etc. For my hypothesis to be correct, the data would have to clearly show the expected trend, and the subspecies would have to clearly show differences in these characteristics according to the expected trend.
As mentioned above, a characteristic of cervidae is cud chewing, a mechanism of feeding made possible by multiple stomachs and aided digestion by gut bacteria (Geist, 2019). This symbiotic relationship with bacteria is one that moose depend on to properly digest their food, especially cellulose, which they cannot digest on their own (Ishaq and Wright, 2012). I hypothesize that the ability for moose to harbor bacteria in their stomachs is a biochemical adaptation to best digest cellulose and other components of their diet. To test this, I would compare the digestive system of a moose to an organism without a similar specialized multi-chambered stomach. For example, horses are odd toed ungulates of the order perissodactyla, with a single chamber stomach. I would isolate gut bacteria and digestive enzymes from both the gut of a moose and that of a horse, and compare how efficiently each metabolizes cellulose, taking into account each organisms digestive process. If the more efficient system was that of a moose, then my hypothesis is correct. Research on ruminant (multi chambered) and monogastric (single stomach) digestion shows that to be the case (Watkins et al., 2010).
Moose have many interesting traits that make them fascinating creatures to observe, whether that observation is with one’s own eyes in the wild or from those of another through videos and journal articles published online. North American moose are an example of how the mechanisms of evolution allow organisms to creatively thrive in their environment, even if that environment is cold and wet. I plan to venture back into northern Maine’s woods once more this coming December, perhaps I will once again have a chance to witness these adaptations in action.
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