Earlier this week, a large bull moose was sighted near Protivin in Howard County northeast Iowa. Moose are sizeable animals, standing over six feet tall at the shoulder and with huge antlers which can have a span of over six feet. Despite a passing resemblance to the horse, moose are the largest members of the deer species. Because of their height, moose prefer to feed on tall grasses and shrubs although they will eat pine cones during the winter months and also browse on mosses and lichens hidden beneath the snow which they clear with their hooves to get to the food source beneath. During the summer months, moose can often be seen shoulder-deep in lakes and rivers grazing on aquatic plants. For such a huge creature, the moose is pretty agile.
They are confident swimmers and have been observed paddling for several miles even submerging completely for thirty seconds or more as they search for food beneath the water’s surface. On land moose can reach speeds of 35 miles per hour over short distances and can maintain an impressive twenty miles per hour at a steady trot. Moose are generally solitary except during the breeding season which runs from September to October every year although calves will remain with their mothers from birth until the next mating season.
Moose numbers in serious decline However, these majestic and iconic animals are in trouble. Populations across the US and Canada are in rapid decline and it’s feared that they could disappear altogether from some states. So far, the reason for the alarming mortality is a mystery. Some have blamed over-hunting but this has been largely dismissed by scientists. The most popular theory to date is that climate change is affecting moose populations. Winters are becoming shorter and milder and this in turn is leading to an increase in parasitic ticks which feed on the moose. Brain worms and liver flukes have also been observed in some animals. These parasites feed on blood in the host’s liver. Moose grazing on marshy land pick up the flukes from snails which act as hosts to the parasites. Less freezing weather means more access to marshy grazing areas for the moose and consequently, the ingestion of more fluke carrying snails.
Moose have evolved to be animals best suited to a cold environment; milder weather can stress them, cause exhaustion and even death. Scientists are hoping to track and study moose in the worst affected areas during the autumn which is when mortality rates are highest in an effort to finally solve the mystery. Radio collars are to be used which will send a satellite signal showing the location of each tagged animal; the collar will send a different signal should the tagged animal’s heart stop beating. This will enable scientists to get to the body before decomposition destroys vital information. Researchers are confident that ticks are at least in part responsible for many of the deaths. Tick infestation results in a constant drain of blood from the moose which quickly become anemic. The irritation caused by the ticks causes the animals to literally tear out their fur. Already weakened animals then become cold and ultimately hypodermic. So next time you’re out there enjoying the great outdoors in northeast Iowa, have your camera at the ready just in case you’re lucky enough to see one of these stunning creatures.