The taxonomy of the American Moose and the American Elk, a related specis, is treated variously by different authorities. Wilson and Reeder (2005) recognize the Eurasian Elk as Alces alces and the American Moose as Alces americanus separately.. However, there is some debate about whether or not these are separate species and Nagorsen (pers. com. 2011) indicates that this view is not widely accepted. In E-Fauna BC, we treat them as a single species. For more information on the taxonomic debate, see the IUCN taxonomic discussion for American Moose.
The Moose is the largest member of the deer family, and the males have the largest antlers of any living deer. The heaviest Moose on record is the Alaskan Moose of Alaska, weighing 595.5 kg for an adult male and 480 kg for an adult female. The Moose’s body is about the size of a saddle horse and its legs are long and slender. Its hooves are large, elongated and sharp pointed, with well-developed lateral hooves or dew claws. The head is long with large ears, relatively small eyes, and a square-lipped, bulbous muzzle (the upper lip overhangs). The nose is covered in short fur except for a small bare patch between the nostrils. A long (152 to 762 mm) flap of skin called a dewlap or bell hangs from the top of the throat. The shape of the bell viewed from the side can vary from slender to bulbous (satchel). While the satchel shape is typical of adult males, other shapes of the bell cannot be used to sex an individual. The neck is relatively short, and there is a noticeable hump above the shoulders. The tail is short and is not surrounded by a light rump patch, although most females have a small, usually indistinct area of white or lighter coloured hairs around the ano-genital region.
In general, the body, belly and rump are dark to blackish brown, sometimes greyish brown. The legs are lighter, often greyish white on the lower parts, especially on the insides and on the rear of hind legs. This is most evident in males. The face can be the same colour as the rest of the body, or lighter, or grey. The neck and top of the shoulders are covered in long hair (up to 150 mm) that is usually darker than the rest of the body, and can form a noticeable cape. Moose have antorbital, tarsal and interdigital glands and possibly a gland at the base of the bell. There is some disagreement whether they have metatarsal glands. Female Moose, like most deer, have four functional teats.
Moose calves up to about three months old are light red to reddish brown and lack spots. The hair around the eyes, on the muzzle and ears is black, while the inguinal area and insides of the ears are light. At two to three months of age, the coat colour changes to resemble the adults.
The antlers of adult males are characteristically large, laterally oriented and palmated (palm-shaped). The antlers show their greatest profile when seen from the front, and have one or two sections. When only one section is present, the stout main beam leaves the pedicel laterally and horizontally, before turning back and becoming heavily palmated. Tines of varying lengths grow along the outer edge of the palmated area. When the antler consists of two parts, the short main beam again leads from the pedicel, and then branches into an anterior section. This can consist of two or three large tines directed forward, or it can be palmated with outer tines along the edge. The posterior section is larger and always heavily palmated with a fringe of medium to short tines along the outer edge. Antlers of yearling males usually begin as a simple fork, but by the second year a third point or a small palm develops. Antlers are shed from late November to early January, with older males losing theirs first.
A Moose skull is long and narrow, especially the premaxillae and maxillae region, which accounts for over 36 per cent of its basilar length. The nasal bones on the other hand are short and the anterior nasal opening is large. There is a clear swelling of the frontal bones just behind the orbits, and in front of this, a small depression along the centre line of the cranium.
Identification and Subspecies Information
Three subspecies of Moose are recognized in B.C.--Northwestern Moose, Alaskan Moose, and Shiras' Moose.
Externally, Northwestern Moose differs little from the other two subspecies in the province. The cranial dimensions show extensive overlap, and it is possible that Northwestern Moose are somewhat intermediate in colour between Alaskan Moose and Yellowstone Moose. See the Description for the species.
total length: male: 3,085 mm (2,712-3,454) n=15; female: 2,899 mm (2,410-3,251) n=85
tale vertebrae: male: 133 mm (95-171) n=2; female: 87 mm (30-80) n=2
hind foot: male: 804 mm (775-832) n=2); female: 856 (800-890) n=28
shoulder: male: 1,877 mm (1,924-1,829) n=2; female: 1,651 n=1
chest: male: 2,145.3 mm (1,981-2,489) n= 13; female: 2,012 mm (1,118-2,489) n=84
ear: male: 251 mm (248-251) n=2
weight: male: 437.3 kg (339-519) n=4; female: 312.3 kg (270-352) n=3
skull length: male: 530.5 mm (516-551) n=4; female: 545.0 mm (538-554) n=3
skull width: male: 210.0 mm (198-220) n=4; female: 199.3-203) n=3
Northwestern Moose has the widest distribution of the three subspecies in the province. It is found throughout most of British Columbia, except the extreme northwest and southeast corners. Northwestern Moose is also generally absent west of the Coast Mountains, although it is found in some small localized areas such as along the Skeena River and at the heads of major inlets such as Butte, Douglas, Knight and Portland. It does not occur on either Vancouver Island or the Queen Charlotte Islands. Good places to see Northwestern Moose include many areas around Prince George, the Kootenay River valley in Kootenay National Park, Wells Gray Provincial Park and the Elaho River valley northwest of Squamish.
Approximately 170,000 Moose lived in British Columbia in 1997. Most were Northwestern Moose, which is not considered to be threatened. Some of the highest densities are reported around Prince George, near Horsefly, along the Interior Plateau and on the east side of the Rocky Mountain northwest of Fort St. John.
Subspecies: Alaskan Moose (Alces alces gigas)
Alaskan Moose is the largest subspecies of Moose, although whether it is larger than Northwestern Moose in nearby northern populations is uncertain. In terms of body colour, it is supposed to be the darkest of the province’s three subspecies.
total length: male: 3055 mm (?) n=5; female: 2,495 (2,413-2,578) n=2
tail vertebrae: male: 178 (?) n=2; female: 200 (197-203) n=2
hind foot: male 828 mm (?) n=2; female: 794 (787-800) n=2
shoulder: male: 1867 mm (?) n=2; female: 1820 (1798-1842) n=2
chest: male: 2041 mm (?) n=5; female: 2013 mm (?) n=23
weight: male: 505 kg (492-517) n=2; female: 375 kg (263-451) n=11
skull length: male: 557.0 mm (544-570) n=2; female: 523.0 mm (517-530) n=4
skull width: male: 214.3 mm (208-219) n=3; female: 193.3 mm (188-204) n=4
Cowan and Guiguet, in The Mammals of British Columbia (1965), state that Alaskan Moose occurs only in the extreme northwest corner of the province “from Telegraph Creek north through the Yukon drainage basin including Atlin and Teslin lakes”. The southern and eastern boundaries of its range are uncertain, so the population of this subspecies is difficult to estimate. Some of the highest densities are along the Tatshenshini and Teslin rivers, and around Teslin and Atlin lakes.
There is no estimate of the number of this subspecies, but it is not considered threatened in the province.
Subspecies: Shiras Moose (Alces alces shirasi)
Data on Shiras’ Moose are insufficient to give an accurate description. Shiras’ Moose is supposed to be the smallest subspecies in British Columbia. Certainly, its antlers are smaller than those of the other two subspecies; and they are usually less palmated, but this pole-horn type, as it is sometimes referred to, is found in other subspecies, so is not unique to Shiras’ Moose. The coat colour of this moose is generally lighter than the other subspecies; it has been described as pale rusty yellowish brown or pale brown along the back and upper sides of the neck, shading to brown-black on the lower part of the body, except on the lower belly, which is a pale buff colour. The ears are described as light grey and the hooves small. Cranial dimensions show much overlap among the subspecies, so measurements are not useful criteria for separating them.
total length: male: 2,540 mm n=1
hind foot: males: 762 mm n=1
weight: male: 405 km (311-524) n=20; female: 338 kg (272=386) n=7
skull width: male: 195.7 mm (181-212) n=10; female: 193.6 mm (188-197) n=5
Shiras’ Moose is restricted to an area in the extreme southeastern part of the province, although the exact northern border is debatable. The maximum distribution is considered to be south of the Trans-Canada Highway ranging from the upper Flathead River valley, east to the adjacent west slopes of the Rocky Mountains, and south to the international border. The western boundary is also uncertain, but may be the east side of Kootenay Lake. In The Mammals of British Columbia (1965), Cowan and Guiguet describe a much more restricted distribution area for this subspecies: “the Flathead Valley and adjacent Rocky Mountain areas south of Crowsnest Pass”. The Flathead and Elk river valleys provide the best places to see this subspecies.
In 1997, there were about 6,700 Moose in the East Kootenay, most of which appear to be Shiras' Moose. This subspecies is not considered at risk.
The Moose’s unique features are: large size; dark brown coat; long, usually light-coloured, slender legs; large ears; long head with a bulbous muzzle; skin flap hanging from the throat; hump above the shoulders; and lack of an obvious light rump patch. In males, the large, broad palmated antlers bordered by short tines or points are also species specific. The European Fallow Deer, the only other species with palmated antlers, is much smaller, has smaller antlers and has different body coloration.
Elk and horses are similar in size to Moose, but both lack the shoulder hump and bell. Elk do not have the long head and bulbous muzzle, and have a large light brown or tan-coloured rump patch. Also the colour of the neck and legs in Elk is usually darker than the body, unlike Moose. A horse’s legs are shorter and more stout than a Moose’s, and have wide, single hooves; and the long upper neck mane and long-haired tail are unique to horses.
The skull of a Moose is unlike that of any other British Columbian ungulate. It has short nasal bones and characteristically long premaxillae and maxillae bones that extend more than 200 mm in front of the first upper premolar in adults. Similarly, the diastema of the lower jaw is long (only the Giraffe has a proportionately longer one).
Adult Moose tracks are unique, being much longer (about 150 to 180 mm) than those of Mule Deer or White-tailed Deer, and narrower with much sharper front points than similar-sized tracks of Elk, Caribou, Bison or Domestic Cattle (Figure 38). Dry faecal pellets of Moose, are much larger than those of Caribou, Mule Deer or White-tailed Deer. They are similar in size to those of Elk, but are rounded at both ends, whereas Elk pellets have a dimple at one end and a short projection at the other.
Birth takes place in June after a gestation period of 240 to 246 days, and newborns weigh from 11 to 16 kg. Twins are common in areas with good nutritional conditions, otherwise single births are the rule, and triplets are rare. Females seek seclusion to give birth (e.g., islands in rivers). Mothers will drive away their yearling offspring, but may re-unite with them a few weeks after giving birth. It is not clear whether young Moose use the follower or hider strategy. Predation on young Moose can be high in the first year of life, mainly by bears and wolves. Female Moose are extremely protective of their young and respond aggressively towards any perceived threat to their offspring, charging with ears back and hair raised, ready to lash out with their long front legs and sharp hooves.
If nutritional conditions are favourable, female Moose may give birth as early as their second birthday, but most are usually three years old before their first young are born. Yearling males produce viable spermatozoa, but most have little opportunity to mate until a few years older.
Moose are primarily browsers, but their diet varies seasonally and geographically. In early winter, they feed on twigs of deciduous trees and shrubs. While it is difficult to generalize because of geographic differences, Moose commonly eat Paper Birch, willows and Trembling Aspen, with willows probably being the most important winter forage. Other preferred but less common foods include Red Osier Dogwood, Mountain Ash, Cottonwood, False Box, Saskatoon, Hazel and Highbush-cranberry. As winter progresses and snow continues to accumulate, covering many deciduous species, Moose feed increasingly on coniferous trees, particularly Subalpine Fir. Signs of Moose feeding on deciduous trees and shrubs are quite common. They range from heavily browsed shrubs that have short, dense, many-branched twigs and branches, to young deciduous trees with their tops bent over or broken. Because of their long legs, Moose may sometimes kneel down to reach low growing plants such as forbs. At other times, they will straddle and push down small deciduous trees to gain access to the top branches. In spring and summer, Moose feed on new leaves and growing shoots of browse species and also take a wide range of terrestrial herbs, such as Fireweed. They will also feed, sometimes heavily, on emergent and floating vegetation (e.g., Swamp Horsetail, Bur-reeds, and various species of Pondweed) in swamps and ponds, and along lake margins. While consuming aquatic vegetation, Moose often venture into deep water up to their shoulders and feed with their heads completely submerged. Their use of aquatic plants in summer has been linked to these plants’ high sodium content. In the late summer and fall, as forbs die back, Moose feed once more on deciduous browse species. An adult Moose is estimated to need as much as 19 kg of food each day.
Age determination and life expectancy
Determining the age of a Moose is most easily accomplished by counting the cementum annuli of the incisors. The average life expectancy for adult Moose is 8 to 10 years, and few Moose in B.C. are older than 17 years of age.
Predators and other mortality factors
Wolves are the main predators of Moose, most of the time taking the oldest and youngest members of the population, while bears prey heavily on young in some areas. Most healthy adult Moose can defend themselves from predators with aggressive behaviour, including kicks from their front and hind feet. In some regions of the province, collisions with trains can be a major cause of winter mortality. This occurs when Moose become trapped in the railroad right-of-way by high snow banks piled alongside the tracks.
Some Moose can suffer severe hair loss in the late winter or spring caused by heavy infestations of the Winter Tick. Affected individuals rub and scratch themselves in an effort to rid themselves of the parasites and in the process, remove their outer guard hairs, leaving the lighter coloured under-hair. The resulting light colouring has led to the term Ghost Moose. The Winter Tick is carried by other species besides Moose, including Caribou, Elk, Mule Deer, White-tailed Deer and Bison. The ticks stay on the host during the winter, then in the spring, the fertilized females drop off the host to lay their eggs. Larval ticks seek a host in the fall, gradually developing into adults during the winter. If tick numbers and hair loss are extreme, affected Moose may become anaemic from blood loss, and in extreme cases, die from exposure and hypothermia in times of inclement weather. Moose in B.C. are infected by the American Liver Fluke. If infestations are heavy and associated with malnutrition, they may contribute to the death of the animal. Moose Sickness is a neurological disease caused by the Meningeal or Brain Worm. The usual vertebrate host is the White-tailed Deer. Transmission of this parasite from deer to Moose has been implicated in population declines in eastern North America in the first half of the 20th century, but the true role of the parasite is unknown. It is not reported in western Moose populations.
Social organization, grouping and behaviour
Moose may be the least social of B.C.’s ungulates. Like most hoofed mammals, the sexes live apart for much of the year, and the males are generally solitary. Females usually live only with their offspring until the young is just over a year old, although they may remain together longer if the mother fails to give birth that year. In some areas, males aggregate in the fall at the beginning of the mating season. Moose are particularly vocal during the rut, and a variety of vocalizations have been described as moans, barks, croaks and grunts. Females also vocalize in the rut, and also use a grunt to call the young. The young will sometimes bawl like a domestic calf.
Both sexes show aggression by lowering their ears with the insides facing forward and raising the hair on their neck and shoulders. In the rut, male Moose display their antlers when they approach each other, walking in a slow, stiff-legged gait, tilting their head and antlers from side to side in an exaggerated see-saw motion, sometimes accompanied by a nasal vocalization. The stiff gait and rhythmic tilting movement of the head may draw attention to the large, light-coloured palms that are oriented forward and towards the opponent. Two males will often circle each other, displaying in this fashion. Like many other deer, they will also thrash nearby bushes with their antlers during the display’s early phase. Thrashing noises probably function as a threat; they may also attract rival males. One or both interacting males may show displacement feeding, turning away from the other to feed briefly or just lower the head to the ground. If one rival does not move away, the two opponents will likely lock antlers, pushing and wrestling until one finally breaks away. Fights occasionally become vicious and animals can be injured or even killed. Broken ribs are not uncommon. While there are substantiated reports of Moose locking antlers and dying because they are unable to disengage, this situation is extremely rare. Females in the rut are also aggressive, charging each other with ears down and hair raised, and striking out with a foreleg. While the antlers are still growing or after they have been shed, male Moose will fight using their front feet in the same manner as females.
Mating takes place between early September and late October in B.C. At this time both sexes of this mostly solitary species will actively seek mates. The mating system of Moose is quite flexible, and ranges from pairs to loose associations of up to 20 adults. Habitat structure and Moose abundance seem to be the determining factors, with open areas allowing the larger associations. Female Moose appear much more pro-active in the mating season than females of other ungulate species. They are also vocal at this time, making long quavering moans variously described as a long drawn out “oo-oo-aw” or “mwar” in which the last note drops. These calls can be heard more than three kilometres away.
A male Moose uses his forelegs to scrape a small depression in soft, wet ground, urinate in it and then wallow, rubbing its bell, chin and lower parts of the antlers in the urine-soaked mud. The odour seems to attract females who will approach, sniff the male and then also wallow in the depressions. The male’s courtship is not particularly elaborate. He approaches the female from her rear, sniffs her, and if she urinates, he almost always lip-curls. If she is coming into heat, he then follows behind her and later places his chin on her rump. If she does not move away, he briefly mounts and copulates with her. Throughout his courtship, the male utters soft grunts or croaks, although the females reportedly show no obvious reaction to them. Females come into oestrus every 21 days, and remain in heat for about 24 hours.
The Moose is primarily a forest-dwelling ungulate and is especially common in boreal forests throughout their circumpolar range. Boreal forests are ecologically dynamic due primarily to forest fires. Unlike Caribou, Moose are well adapted to this changing forest landscape, able to obtain the most nutritious food in northern and subalpine forests. For example, their diet consists largely of shrubs and young trees that are characteristic of early seral stages and young forests. Under superior conditions, when fires create abundant and nutritious forage, Moose are able to produce twins and even triplets. Moose also make extensive use of river valleys where seasonal scouring by floods and ice create a complex pattern of young and old forest stands. Avalanches on steep side slopes can result in similar vegetation diversity. Whether created by fire, logging, snow slides, or seasonal flooding, successional stands with palatable browse species are important for Moose. Typically, winter is the season of greatest stress for Moose. At this time, they seek areas with reduced snowfall such as river valleys and areas of dense conifers where the canopy intercepts falling snow. There, access to food is comparatively better and shallow snow makes travel easier. In mountainous terrain, males often winter at the treeline where strong winds reduce the snow cover and Subalpine Fir provide an abundant supply of food.
In his 1952 monograph, Randolph Peterson used mainly size differences of the skull to separate the various subspecies of Moose, even though there was much overlap. Today such differences are not considered particularly useful, and Moose taxonomy needs to be re-examined. The presence of Shiras’ Moose in British Columbia represents the northern limit of this subspecies’ range in North America. Peterson thought that most, if not all, of Shiras’ Moose in the province were intergraded with Northwestern Moose and that individuals in southeastern B.C. had intermediate characteristics between the two subspecies. Shiras’ Moose is named after George Shiras III, who reported this Moose in Yellowstone National Park between 1908 and 1910. The type locality for Alaskan Moose is Tustomena Lake, Kenai Peninsula, Alaska; for Northwestern Moose it is Sprucewood Forest Reserve, 24 km east of Brandon Manitoba; and for Shiras’ Moose it is the Snake River, Wyoming.
In 1998, a well-preserved Moose antler was found in a peat bog near Smithers. Its radiocarbon date of over 5,510 years before present makes it one of the earliest known fossil Moose in B.C.
Alces is Latin for “elk”, Alce is Greek for “elk”, and in German it is elch. The common name Moose is derived from the Algonkian word musee meaning “eater of twigs”.
Moose numbers appear to have fluctuated in the province, at least since the arrival of the first Europeans. But there is some uncertainty about the historical distribution of this species in B.C. Research by Dr James Hatter suggested that historically, Moose were absent from much of central B.C. and did not occupy this region until the 1900s. At this time, European settlers and miners cleared dense forests, thereby creating Moose habitat and allowing their southerly expansion. In 1931, Dr Ian MacTaggart Cowan was told by members of the Tsilhqot’in (Chilcotin) First Nation that Moose first moved into their area about five or six years earlier, and that they had no word for Moose in their language. Dr David Spalding, in his 1990 report, found evidence suggesting that some Moose may have always been present in much of B.C., except for west of the Coast Range, even if only at low densities. It is reasonably clear, however, that Moose numbers did increase and that they expanded southward after the turn of the century. It also appears that this southerly expansion was followed shortly after by an increase in Wolf numbers. Together, these two factors have been blamed for the demise of Woodland Caribou in the 1930s.
Moose, particularly in the northern parts of their range, are well adapted to the normal dynamics of the boreal forest, but logging is increasingly replacing fire as the primary agent of forest change, and thus the habitat requirements of Moose need to be considered in forest harvesting plans.
At certain times of the year, Moose can be one of the most dangerous large mammals in North America. Females with young in early spring should not be approached, and both sexes are best avoided during the mating season. Usually, the first signs of aggression are lowering the ears, followed by raising the hair on the neck and shoulders. Both males and females use their long front legs and sharp hooves to strike out at other Moose, as well as at predators and humans.
Wilson, D. E., and D. M. Reeder [editors]. 2005. Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference (Third Edition). Johns Hopkins University Press. Available online at the Mammal Species of the World website.
Recommended citation: Author, Date. Page title. In Klinkenberg, Brian. (Editor) 2021. E-Fauna BC:
Electronic Atlas of the Fauna of British Columbia [efauna.bc.ca]. Lab
for Advanced Spatial Analysis, Department of Geography, University of British
Columbia, Vancouver. [Accessed:
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