Moose, Meese, Mooses

Way back in the 42nd episode of the newsletter, we explored the gorgeous Gekko gecko, otherwise known as the tokay gecko. I came upon that beauty through photographs but loved the nearly identical scientific nomenclature, which got me thinking about tautonyms. A tautonym is the term for a doubled taxonomic name, and its usage implicitly indicates that a species is the “type species” for the genus. Essentially, it’s the OG for the genus.

It had been a while since we looked at some cute critters, so as I pondered today’s topic on the porcelain throne I thought about what animal I might want to profile. I must have seen an article or photo of a moose recently, as that image was the first to pop into my head. I did some quick research and discovered that a moose’s scientific name is Alces alces! I had not planned to research a tautonym, as I figured that would be a great article idea down the road, but I am not one to deny the wonderful coincidences that arise in life. It was a sign to write about moose.

As Mr. Eko said in Lost, “don’t mistake coincidence for fate.” That notion can be viewed in both directions. Don’t think something is fate when it just happens to be a coincidence. However, don’t dismiss something as a coincidence when it might be fate. I choose to believe I was fated to write about moose today.

Moose are members of the deer family. In fact, they are the largest living species of deer. These cervine creatures are truly massive: the average bull is 4.6 to 6.9 feet high at the shoulder and weighs 838 to 1,543 pounds! Those figures are at least a foot taller than the next largest deer species, the wapiti. I remember growing up to stories from logging truck drivers in Maine, behemoth metal machines in their own right, fearing a moose in the road. A regular deer or another small creature will just be a small nuisance to a fully loaded rig. But a moose is going to be a problem even to the enormous trucks.

One hallmark of a moose is its unique antler artillery. Unlike other deer, which have dendritic antlers (“twig-like”), moose feature palmate plumage (“open-shaped hands”).

Mature Alaskan bull moose have antlers that reach a spread of over 80 inches! Interestingly, the size of the antlers will decrease in both size and symmetry after the age of 13. High symmetry reflects good health. After a mating season, the moose “drop” the antlers and grow a new set in the spring. Giant antler displays discourage competition among rival moose. Of course, they are also extraordinary battering rams if it comes time to do battle with a rival or an outside threat.

A moose in Minnesota with palmate antlers - USDA Forest Service photo

As with many of the great place, animal, and plant names of North America, the word “moose” derives from a Native American language. In this case, “moose” likely comes from an Algonquin tongue, probably Narragansett moos or Abenaki moz, according to etymonline.

Worldwide, there is some confusion about the naming and species, as the moose is known as an elk in Europe. In North America, the name “elk” is actually attached to another species, also known as the wapiti. As is the case with most etymological turmoil, the web is tangled. 

Most moose reside in Canada, Alaska, New England, Scandanavia, Russia, and the Baltics. In the contiguous United States, Maine has the greatest number of moose, but populations exist in New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior, and the Rocky Mountains.

Worldwide moose range

These herbivores subsist on grasses, shrubs, and lichens. Especially in summer, moose love water and can often be seen in lakes, rivers, or wetlands, munching on aquatic plants. Despite their size, moose are fantastic swimmers. The animals have been observed swimming miles at a time. Further, they can fully submerge themselves for as long as 30 to 60 seconds.

These big beasts are also incredible runners. They can steadily move at 20 miles per hour but can turn up the heat to 35 miles per hour if needed. Though they are usually wary of humans, never mess with mama moose, as she can easily run you down if she feels you threaten her children.

Unlike most deer, moose do not form herds, opting instead to live the solitary life. Other than babies, which stick to their mothers for approximately 18 months, most moose you see will be on their own. The only other exception is during the mating season when bulls might battle each other for mating supremacy. The males emit loud bellows to attract mates. Females give birth to one or two calves in the spring, each one weighing about 30 pounds!

According to National Geographic, at five days old these calves can already outrun a human being!

Of course, the highlight of examining an animal species is seeing it in the wild. Depending on your location and the rarity of the animal, sometimes the best you can do is check out the footage. I have been fortunate enough to see several moose in the wild. They are truly magnificent giants.

Feast your eyes on the following slew of videos, which includes capturing a moose losing an antler, moose swimming, and, as required by law, cute babies!

Bonus fact: the flap of skin that hangs below a moose’s throat is called a bell.

And, by the way, the correct plural for moose is…….moose.

Further Reading and Exploration

Moose – National Geographic

Moose – National Wildlife Federation

Alces alces – Integrated Taxonomic Information System

Moose: Crowned Giant of the Northern Wilderness – by Mark Raycroft

If You Give a Moose a Muffin – by Laura Numeroff

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