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Moose (Alces alces) were among the first Large mammals to recolonize Central Europe after the Last glaciation. During the Allerod (The Allerød oscillation was a warm and moist global interstadial that occurred c.13,900 to 12,900, nearly at the end of the Last Glacial Period) the Moose established themselves in most parts of the landmass. In the early Holocene their distribution range extended from the Pyrenees to Denmark and from Austria to Great Britain and also covered eastern Central Europe where they still occur today. European rock drawings and cave paintings reveal that Moose have been hunted since the Stone Age, a period of time which began about 2.6 million years ago, when researchers found the earliest evidence of humans using stone tools, and lasted until about 3,300 B.C. when the Bronze Age began. Although the period ended, the Moose populations have oscillated; although they still do inhabit multiple landscapes across Europe.
Alces alces is referred to as a “Moose” in North American English, but an “Elk” in British English(Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed). As noted previously, the word “Elk” in English refers to a completely different species of deer, Cervus Canadensis, also referred to as the Wapiti.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the origin of the naming of the Moose species is “of obscure history”.
The word “Elk” remained in usage because of English-speakers’ familiarity with the species in Continental Europe; however, without any living animals around to serve as a reference, the meaning became rather vague, and by the 17th century “Elk” had a meaning similar to “large deer”. Dictionaries of the 18th century simply described “Elk” as a deer that was “as large as a horse”. As the Moose was a strange deer to the colonists, they often adopted local names for both. In the earlier days of colonization, the Wapiti was often called a “Grey Moose” and the Moose was often called a “Black Moose”, but early accounts of the animals varied wildly, adding to the confusion.
For example, as mentioned in Wild Deer of the World – North American Moose”, Samuel Dale wrote in 1736 to the Royal Society of Great Britain:
“The common light-Grey Moose, called by the Indians, Wampoose, and the large or Black-Moose, which is the beast whose horns I herewith present. As to the Grey Moose, I take it to be no larger than what Mr. John Clayton, in his account of the Virginia Quadrupeds, calls the Elke … was in all respects like those of our red-deer or stags, only larger … The Black Moose is (by all that have hitherto write of it) accounted a very large creature. … The stag, buck, or male of this kind has a palmed horn, not like that of our common or fallow-deer, but the palm is much longer, and more like that of the German Elke.” (sic)
Although not widely accepted, some classifications also recognize several Eurasian subspecies, including the European moose (A. alces alces); the Siberian, or Yakut, moose (A. alces pfizenmayeri); the west Siberian, or Ussuri, moose (A. alces cameloides); and the east Siberian, or Kolyma, moose (A. alces buturlini).
* Extinct subspecies of moose found in the Caucasus Mountains of Eastern Europe and Asia Minor, in modern-day Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and eastern Turkey.
In Europe, Moose are generally found in large numbers. The European Moose is found in Scandinavia and Northern parts of Central Europe throughout Norway, Sweden, Finland, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, with modest numbers in the southern Czech Republic, Belarus and northern Ukraine. They are also widespread through Russia into the borders of Finland, south towards the border with Estonia, Belarus and Ukraine and stretching far eastwards to the Yenisei River in Siberia. The Moose was also native to Switzerland until the 10th century and a subspecies (A. a. caucasicus) of Moose was found in the Caucasus Mountains of Eastern Europe and Asia Minor, in modern-day Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and eastern Turkey.
In general, The European Moose was native to most temperate areas with suitable habitat on the continent and even Scotland from the end of the last Ice Age, as Europe had a mix of temperate boreal and deciduous forest. Up through Classical times (8th to c. 6th centuries BC), the species was certainly thriving in both Gaul (a region of Western Europe first described by the Romans) and Magna Germania (Areas of Germania independent of Roman control), as the animal appears in military and hunting accounts of the age.
However, as the Roman era ended and medieval times commenced, the Moose disappeared. Soon after the reign of Charlemagne the Moose disappeared from France, where its range extended from Normandy in the north to the Pyrenees in the South. In the East, the Moose survived in Alsace and the Netherlands until the 9th century until the marshlands were drained and the forests were cleared away. The Moose was gone from Switzerland by the year 1000, and from the western Czech Republic by 1300, from Mecklenburg in Germany by c. 1600, and from Hungary and the Caucasus since the 18th and 19th century.
By the early 20th century, the last strongholds of the European Moose appeared to be in Fennoscandian areas and patchy tracts of Russia, with a few migrants found in what is now Estonia and Lithuania. The USSR and Poland managed to restore portions of the range within its borders (such as the 1951 reintroduction into Kampinos National Park and the later 1958 reintroduction in Belarus), but political complications limited the ability to reintroduce it to other portions of its range. Attempts in 1930 and again in 1967 in marshland north of Berlin were unsuccessful. At present in Poland, populations are recorded in the Biebrza river valley, Kampinos, and in Białowieża Forest. The Moose has migrated into other parts of Eastern Europe and has been spotted in eastern and southern Germany (“Moose in New England face grisly deaths from tick infestations” March 18, 2017. Adam Wernick). Unsuccessful thus far in recolonizing these areas via natural dispersal from source populations in Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Czech Republic and Slovakia, it appears to be having more success migrating south into the Caucasus where it is listed under Appendix III of the Bern Convention (Samuel, W. M).
In addition to differences in geographical distribution, the different subspecies of Moose are further distinguished by features such as size, pelage, and antler characteristics. The differences in regional body sizes appears to reflect adaptation to local conditions. The largest Moose specimens are found in Alaska and eastern Siberia; there bulls can weigh as much as 600 kilograms and stand two metres tall at the shoulder. The smallest moose are found in its southernmost populations in Wyoming and Manchuria, where large bulls weigh 300–350 kilograms (Britannica).
As an interesting aside in regards to size, in 1784, a Vermont Moose went to Paris to settle an argument between a French natural historian and Thomas Jefferson. The historian, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Count Buffon, attacked the character of the new American nation. His rhetoric of “Degeneration” held that all natural elements began in one location (presumably Europe), where they existed in their purest form. Leclerc’s theory played well with the European aristocracy since it described Americans, with democratic ideals, as inferior beings. And he didn’t stop there. He pronounced the American Indians as physically weak people with small genitals and a limited drive to procreate. Thomas Jefferson, American minister to France and himself an avid student of natural history, confronted LeClerc over his theories. Amongst other rebuttal, to defend the moose’s honour, Jefferson badgered New Hampshire Gov. John Sullivan, as he knew moose abounded in Northern New England. He asked Sullivan to procure the bones and hide of a moose and ship them to France.
Though the Moose skin and skeleton arrived somewhat worse for wear, they did persuade LeClerc he was incorrect in his assessment of the size of American moose. He promised to correct the error in a future edition of his work. He died, however, before he could publish the correction (A Vermont Moose Visits Paris in 1787).
The East Asian moose populations confine themselves mostly to the territory of Russia, with much smaller populations in Mongolia and North-eastern China. Moose populations are relatively stable in Siberia and increasing on the Kamchatka Peninsula. In Mongolia and China, where illegal harvest took a great toll on Moose, forcing them to near extinction. In 1978, the Regional Hunting Department transported 45 young Moose to the centre of Kamchatka. These Moose were brought from Chukotka, home to the largest moose on the planet. Kamchatka is now regularly responsible for the largest trophy Moose shot around the world each season. As it is a fertile environment for Moose, with a milder climate, less snow, and an abundance of food. Moose quickly bred and settled along the valley of the Kamchatka River and many surrounding regions. The population in the past 20 years has risen to over 2,900 animals.
A mature male Moose is called a bull, a mature female a cow, and an immature Moose of either sex a calf. The size of the moose varies. Following Bergmann’s rule, population in the south (A. a. cameloides) usually grow smaller, while Moose in the North and Northeast (A. a. buturlini) can match the imposing sizes of the Alaskan Moose (A. a. gigas). The typical age of a European Moose is reported at a tentative 16 to 20 years old, notwithstanding typical incidental death in the wild. In Whiteheads works, he quotes the following, “The potential longevity of animals differs from that of birds and reptile’s amphibians and fishes in that in the large majority of species there is an additional controlling factor – The teeth. (Flower 1931)”. He goes on to say that that it is believed that the life of deer is dependant, to an extent, to the duration of the individual’s teeth which varies from species to species.
Intriguingly, it was a common belief in the last century that many animals, and deer in particular would “normally live seven times the number of years that it takes to bring them to full maturity, and in consequence the average age of many animals, including deer was often exaggerated”. For Instance, George Tubervilee (1576) suggested that “Hartes and Hyndes may live a hundredth yeres” (Sic)
Moose are an old genus. Like its relatives, Odocoileus and Capreolus, the genus Alces gave rise to very few species that endured for long periods of time. This differs from the Megacerines (giant deer), such as the Irish elk, which evolved many species before going extinct. Some scientists, such as Adrian Lister, group the Moose and all its extinct relatives into one genus, Alces, while others, such as Augusto Azzaroli, restrict Alces to the living species.
Alces alces (the modern living Moose) appeared during the late Pleistocene epoch. The species arrived in North America at the end of the Pleistocene and coexisted with a late-surviving variety or relative of C. latifrons, which Azzaroli classified as a separate species called Cervalces scotti, or the American stag-moose(Deer of the world: their evolution, behaviour, and ecology. V. Geist )
The earliest known species in the Moose lineage is Libralces gallicus (French moose), which lived in the Pliocene epoch, about 2 million years ago. Libralces gallicus came from the warm savannahs of Pliocene Europe, with the best-preserved skeletons being found in southern France. L. gallicus was 1.25 times larger than the Alaskan moose in linear dimensions. L. gallicus had many striking differences from its modern descendants. It had a longer, narrower snout and a less-developed nasal cavity, more resembling that of a modern deer, lacking any sign of the modern moose-snout. Its face resembled that of the modern wapiti. However, the rest of its skull structure, skeletal structure and teeth bore strong resemblance to those features that are unmistakable in modern moose, indicating a similar diet. Its antlers consisted of a horizontal bar 2.5 meters long, with no tines, ending in small palmations. Its skull and neck structure suggest an animal that fought using high-speed impacts, much like the Dall sheep, rather than locking and twisting antlers the way modern Moose combat. Their long legs and bone structure suggest an animal that was adapted to running at high speeds over rough terrain.
Libralces existed until the middle Pleistocene epoch and were followed briefly by a species called Cervalces carnutorum (Moose of the Carnutes). The main differences between the two consisted of shortening of the horizontal bar in the antlers and broadening of the palmations, indicating a likely change from open plains to more forested environments, and skeletal changes in the joints and toes that suggest an adaptation to marshy, taiga environments.
Cervalces carnutorum was soon followed by a much larger species called Cervalces latifrons (broad-fronted moose). The Pleistocene epoch was a time of gigantism, in which most species were much larger than their descendants of today, including exceptionally large lions, hippopotamuses, mammoth, and deer. Many fossils of Cervalces latifrons have been found in Siberia, dating from about 1.2 to 0.5 million years ago. This is most likely the time at which the species migrated from the Eurasian continent to North America. Like its descendants, it inhabited mostly northern latitudes, and was probably well-adapted to the cold. C. latifrons was the largest deer known to have ever existed, standing more than 2.1 meters tall at the shoulders. This is bigger than even the Irish elk (megacerine), which was 1.8 meters tall at the shoulders. Its antlers were smaller than the Irish elk’s, but comparable in size to those of L. gallicus. However, the antlers had a shorter horizontal bar and larger palmations, more resembling those of a modern Moose (Caroline King, ed. (1995). The handbook of New Zealand mammals). The Moose is generally a silent, semi solitary animal, except in the Rut. At this time in the reproduction cycle the both sexes will vocalise. The annual rut/mating season occurs during the end of September and into October. During this period the bulls are active searching for cows and bulls typically mate with several cows. After a gestation period of 8 months (235 days) the cow gives birth to one or two calves, sometimes even three. The calf weighs 8-15 kilograms at birth and gain 1.5 kilograms per day during the first few months. The reddish fur changes into brown after about 2.5 months. Young moose stay with the cow until the following mating season when they are usually pushed away by the cow to give room for the new calves.
It is generally accepted that Moose of North America came from Siberia somewhere during the last glacial period, around 10,000 to 14,000 years ago
The European Moose, is also general accepted as a great swimmer. As such, it has been recently noted as venturing back into Germany, swimming across the Oder River from Poland and making its way along ancient forest trails.
The European Moose has perhaps displayed one of the most significant increases in population, Particularly in Sweden, where the population has swollen to an estimated excess of 300,000 animals despite an annual cull of some 115,000 (Whitehead 1982). Similarly, an annual hunt takes place in Norway which harvests up to 19,000 animals annually. In Finland, the population in the 1980s had reached an estimated 100,000 animals while both the European, Asiatic and Ural regions of the Soviet Union are estimated to be in excess of one million animals despite extremely low population densities at the turn of the Century.
European rock drawings and cave paintings reveal that moose have been hunted since the Stone Age. Excavations in Alby, Sweden, adjacent to the Stora Alvaret have yielded Moose antlers in wooden hut remains from 6000 BCE, indicating some of the earliest Moose hunting in northern Europe. In northern Scandinavia one can still find remains of trapping pits used for hunting moose. These pits, which can be up to 4 × 7 meters in area and 2 meters deep, would have been camouflaged with branches and leaves. They would have had steep sides lined with planks, making it impossible for the moose to escape once it fell in. The pits are normally found in large groups, crossing the moose’s regular paths and stretching over several km. Remains of wooden fences designed to guide the animals toward the pits have been found in bogs and peat. In Norway, an early example of these trapping devices has been dated to around 3700 BC. As early as the 16th century the Norwegian government tried to restrict their use; nevertheless, the method was in use until the 19th century.
The earliest recorded description of the Moose is in Julius Caesar‘s Commentarii de Bello Gallico, where it is described;
“There are also [animals], which are called alces (moose). The shape of these, and the varied color of their skins, is much like roes, but in size they surpass them a little and are destitute of horns, and have legs without joints and ligatures; nor do they lie down for the purpose of rest, nor, if they have been thrown down by any accident, can they raise or lift themselves up. Trees serve as beds to them; they lean themselves against them, and thus reclining only slightly, they take their rest; when the huntsmen have discovered from the footsteps of these animals whither they are accustomed to betake themselves, they either undermine all the trees at the roots, or cut into them so far that the upper part of the trees may appear to be left standing. When they have leant upon them, according to their habit, they knock down by their weight the unsupported trees, and fall down themselves along with them” (Caesar, Julius; Hirtius, Aulus (1879). “XXVII”. Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic and civil wars. Harper & brothers. p. 154).
Moose are not normally aggressive; however, they can become aggressive when they are harassed or closely encounter when agitated. Further to this, their encounters with humans are numerous across Europe, for instance, in Sweden, the number of Moose vehicle collisions numbered 5874 in 2016 (Nationella Viltolycksrådet 2015). During the last 10 years in average, five fatalities have occurred annually due to vehicle collisions in Sweden.
In a turn of interesting folk law, Thidwick, the hospitable Moose appears as the central character to Dr Seuss’s The Big-Hearted Moose(1948). The story portrays a Moose that allowed his antler to be used as a refuge for other creatures. As follows; ‘After he let a bug rest on his antlers, a spider hoped on, a bird built a nest, a squirrel hid nuts in the holes that a woodpecker drilled and a bobcat came aboard followed by a turtle. Thidwick would do nothing about about it for he had to be hospitable to his guests. When winter came, his guests would not let him go Soouth with his herd, and even invited more animals to make thir home in his antlers. Hunters arrived with guns blasing. Thiswick could not run very fast with 500 pounds of company on his head, but a fact of nature saved his life. The time had come for his annual antler molt’.
Moose are known for their love of marshy, swampy type habitat and will often eat aquatic plant life, at which time they will submerge their heads up to 549cms deep for 30 to up to 50 seconds at a time (Peterson). They also will consume browse in the form of willow, cherrywood, mountain ash, aspen and white birch.
Moose have enchanted humans for centuries. The magnificence of this large deer has also sparked several attempts of reintroduction dating back to the 18th centuries. In feudal Europe, Moose were transported through Europe as presents amongst rulers and present a dominating feature of any hunting adventure, especially if to be pursued traditionally within Europe in the likes of Kamchatka, land of the giants!