Moose (Alces americanus)

Also known as: Siberian elk
Synonyms: Alces alces americanus, Alces alces cameloides
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassMammalia
OrderCetartiodactyla
FamilyCervidae
GenusAlces (1)
SizeHead-body length: 240 - 310 cm (2)
Shoulder height: 140 - 235 cm (2)
Tail length: 5 - 12 cm (2)
Weight200 - 825 kg (2)
Top facts

The moose is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

Together with its close relative the Eurasian elk (Alces alces), the moose (Alces americanus) is the largest living deer species, and is easily recognised by its humped shoulders, broad, overhanging muzzle, and the pendulous flap of skin and hair, or ‘bell’, beneath the throat (2) (3) (4) (5) (6). The body is heavy and deep, with long, rather gangly legs, a relatively short tail (4) (5) (6), and wide hooves, which aid in walking over mud or soft snow (7). The male moose is larger than the female, and, as in other deer, bears bony, hornlike antlers, which are shed each winter and re-grown through the summer. The antlers are massive and palmate (broad and flattened at the base, with short projecting branches), measuring up to two metres across and over 30 kilograms in weight, making them the largest of any deer (2) (3) (4) (6).

The coat ranges from blackish to reddish brown in colour, lighter on the underparts and lower legs, and provides excellent insulation, consisting of a fine wool undercoat interspersed with long guard hairs. The winter coat is duller and lighter in colour, and is shed in spring. The young moose is reddish brown, but, unlike many young deer, lacks spots (2) (3) (4) (6). A number of subspecies have been proposed (3) (4) (6) (8). However, there is much debate over whether the moose and the Eurasian elk constitute separate species. The two differ in features of the skull and antlers, in colouration and in chromosome number (5) (9), but while some classify the two forms as separate species (1) (8), others do not consider them distinct (1) (10). Hybridisation between the two occurs in some areas (1) (5).

The moose is found in Canada and the northern United States, as well as in Russia, east of the Yenisei River, eastwards to the Anadyr region, and south to northern Mongolia and northern China (1) (2) (3) (8). A small population was introduced to New Zealand in the early 20th Century, but has now been extirpated (1) (2) (8).

This species is fairly adaptable in its habitat requirements (5), but prefers a mosaic of second-growth boreal forest, openings, lakes, swamps and wetlands, requiring forest for cover and water bodies for foraging (1). The moose is often associated with spruce, fir and pine forest, and may also occupy tundra and mountains, often in areas characterised by seasonal snow cover (2) (4) (5) (6).

The moose may be active by both day and night, but activity usually peaks at dawn and dusk. The diet includes various tree, shrub and herb species, as well as twigs and bark in winter (1) (2) (4) (5). Moose may markedly alter the structure and dynamics of forest ecosystems through their foraging behaviour (1) (6). Aquatic vegetation is also taken, the moose often wading into lakes and streams and sometimes submerging entirely to feed. The diet may also be supplemented with sodium from mineral licks (1) (2) (3) (4) (5). Some populations migrate in search of food (1) (2) (6), moving between distinct seasonal home ranges (1) (4). As well as being a strong swimmer, the moose is capable at running of speeds of up to 56 kilometres per hour (2) (3), its long legs helping it to easily negotiate obstacles when fleeing predators such as wolves or bears (4) (5) (6).

The moose is essentially solitary, although small, loose groups may form during winter (2) (4) (5). The mating season, or rut, occurs from September to October, during which time males compete for females with elaborate displays and sometimes fights (2) (4) (6) (11). Male moose also wallow in urine-soaked mud scrapes in order to coat the body in scent, to attract females (3) (5). Births occur between May and June (2) (4) (6) (11), after a gestation period of 216 to 264 days (2) (6) (11). A single calf is usually born, but twins are not uncommon, and triplets sometimes occur (2) (4) (6). The young moose weighs 11 to 16 kilograms at birth, and is able to browse and follow the female after two to three weeks (2) (4). Weaning occurs from August to November (11). The calf remains with the female for at least a year, being driven away when the female next gives birth, but sometimes then rejoining the family for a further few months. Although young moose are capable of breeding after the first year, young males rarely gain an opportunity to mate until large enough to compete with older bulls (2) (4) (6) (11). Maximum lifespan may be up to 27 years (2).

The moose has long been hunted for its meat, leather, bone and tendons, and is considered a game animal in most of its range, as well as being a pest of agriculture and forestry in some areas (1) (2) (4) (5) (12). Perhaps surprisingly, the species has also been domesticated for its meat, milk and as a beast of burden, although it is somewhat difficult to keep in good health in captivity (3) (5). Today, the main threat to the species comes from habitat alteration. Although the moose is quite tolerant of disturbed habitats, forestry and agricultural practices in southern Canada have reduced the extent of boreal forest, and have increased numbers of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), which can transmit a fatal brain parasite (1). Collisions with motor vehicles and trains also cause a significant number of moose deaths (4) (6).

Despite these threats, the moose remains widespread and abundant, and is expanding its range in some places (1) (6), sometimes benefitting rather than suffering from habitat modifications such as burning and logging (2). However, although not considered globally endangered, the species is rare and has a limited distribution in China (1) (12), and is considered endangered in Nova Scotia, Canada, where it is under threat from disease, illegal poaching, habitat fragmentation, and potential habitat alterations related to climate change (1) (13).

The moose occurs in many protected areas across its range, and does well where protected from overharvesting by humans or from heavy predation (1). Various attempts have been made to prevent vehicle and train collisions, such as creating barriers, and reducing the speed of trains (6). In China, recommended conservation actions include studies into the species’ ecology, an evaluation of the levels of hunting and habitat loss, more effective management of protected areas, and the creation of new protected areas (12). In Nova Scotia, the Nova Scotia Mainland Moose Recovery Team, brought together in 2004, developed a recovery plan for the moose, which aimed to maintain and enhance the current mainland moose population, to undertake research, to maintain and improve moose habitat, and to tackle the threats faced by this iconic large deer (13).

Find out more about the moose and the Eurasian elk:

Find out more about the conservation of deer species:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. IUCN Red List (September, 2009)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org
  2. Nowak, R.M. (1991) Walker’s Mammals of the World. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.
  3. Macdonald, D.W. (2006) The Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  4. Franzmann, A.W. (1981) Alces alces. Mammalian Species, 154: 1 - 7. Available at:
    http://www.science.smith.edu/departments/Biology/VHAYSSEN/msi/pdf/i0076-3519-154-01-0001.pdf
  5. Geist, V. (1998) Deer of the World: Their Evolution, Behavior, and Ecology. Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.
  6. Feldhamer, G.A., Thompson, B.C. and Chapman, J.A. (2003) Wild Mammals of North America: Biology, Management, and Conservation. Second Edition. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
  7. Burnie, D. (2001) Animal. Dorling Kindersley, London.
  8. Wilson, D.E. and Reeder, D.M. (2005) Mammal Species of the World. A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference. Third Edition. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore. Available at:
    http://www.bucknell.edu/MSW3/
  9. Boeskorov, G.G. (1997) Chromosomal differences in moose. Genetika, 33(7): 974 - 978.
  10. Hundertmark, K.J., Shields, G.F., Bowyer, R.T. and Schwartz, C.C. (2002) Genetic relationships deduced from cytochrome-b sequences among moose. Alces, 38: 113 - 122.
  11. Schwartz, C. (1992) Reproductive biology of North American moose. Alces, 28: 165 - 173.
  12. Wemmer, C. (1998) Deer: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN/SSC Deer Specialist Group, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK. Available at:
    http://data.iucn.org/dbtw-wpd/edocs/1998-040.pdf
  13. Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources. (2007) Recovery Plan for Moose (Alces alces americana) in Mainland Nova Scotia. Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources, Nova Scotia. Available at:
    http://www.gov.ns.ca/natr/wildlife/BIODIV/species_recovery/recoveryplans/MainlandMooseRecoveryPlan.pdf