Moose, Alces alces

'Moos' Meeting

Two moose

© 2000 W. Steve Sherman, Lone Wolf Photography

Reubin Field wounded a moos deer this morning near our camp," Lewis wrote on July 7, 1806, adding, "my dog much worried." The Corps of Discovery encountered this species only one other time during the entire expedition. That was in northeastern Montana on May 10, 1805, when, according to Joe Whitehouse, the hunters claimed to have seen "some Moose deer, which they said was considerably larger than the common deer." This has been interpreted as meaning they probably had seen mule deer, but that is open to question, as the synonomy below might suggest. There is just on other journal reference to moose being in the same vicinity as the Corps, as when a Nez Perce informant told the captains there was "a plenty of Moos" over on the Salmon River southeast of Camp Chopunnish. Also, Clark found reason to mention "moos" and "Mose" three times in his descriptions of the resources of Indian tribes living in the Missouri River basin.1

On the Trail of a Name: From Elk to Deer to Moose

The first time the name of the ungulate pictured above was written down is believed to have been in the First Century B.C., when the Roman emperor Julius Caesar called it alce, pronounced al-see.2 By the beginning of the 8th century A.D. the word appeared in Middle English as elch, elh, or eolh or, at the end of the 15th century, as elke—each a minor phonetic variant of the Latin original.

On a visit to North America in 1614 a British traveler saw the same animal near the coast of Maine, and heard an Algonkian-speaking Indian refer to it by a different expression, which the Englishman may have heard as "moose" but wrote down as "Mus."3 In the late 17th century the English novelist Oliver Goldsmith summarized the onomastic dilemma with the explanation that the lumbering quadraped with the antlers was "known in Europe by the name of the elk, and in America by that of the Moose-deer.4 Thus, when Lewis and Whitehouse used the term "moose deer" they were using the full common name at that time, which described the moose as a variety of deer. That was correct. The moose does indeed belong to the family Cervidae.

Meanwhile, early in the Colonial era the European monosyllable was brought to North America where it somehow became associated with a close relative of the moose-deer that eventually gained the Latin scientific name Cervus canadensis, or "deer of Canada," whose everyday name compounds the misunderstanding. That relative is commonly called "elk."

While the Corps of Discovery's hunters were out shooting "elk," one of Meriwether Lewis's mentors, Benjamin Smith Barton, proposed a new name for the "elk" of America. "As the Elk has not to my knowledge been described by any systematic writer on Zoology, I have assumed the liberty of giving it a specific name," Barton wrote in the Scientific Monthly in 1806. He dubbed it "Wapiti, which is the name by which it is known among the Shawnees or Shawnese Indians." This was suitably descriptive. It means "white rump," and is true of the American elk but not the European elk, which is to say, the moose.

Barton's choice might have eliminated the confusion, but it didn't stick. Only snobs and wildlife biologists refer to an "elk" as a wapiti. The conservation organization responsible for increasing and protecting "elk" habitats in the U.S. does not call itself the "Rocky Mountain Wapiti Foundation." No real "elk" hunter would ask another, "Didja getcher wapiti yet?"

Reality Show

Amost everything about a moose looks menacing. Its mere size, to begin with. It is the second-largest land animal in North America, next to the bison. A male, called a bull, is as tall as a big horse, and weighs 1800 pounds and up, although it is utterly devoid of equine grace in stance and motion—maybe six feet tall at the shoulders.

Indian Uses

"Their flesh is extremely sweet and nourishing. The Indians say, that they can travel three times as far after a meal of Moose, as after any other animal food. The tongues are excellent, but the nose is perfect marrow, and esteemed the greatest delicacy in all Canada. The skin makes excellent buff; is strong, soft, and light. The Indians dress the hide, and, after soaking it for some time, stretch and render it supple by a lather of the brains in hot water. They not only make their snow-shoes of the skin, but after a chase form the canoes with it: they sew it neatly together, cover the seams with an unctuous earth, and embark in them with their spoils to return home.

"The hair on the neck, withers, and hams of a full-grown Elk is of much use in making mattrasses and saddles; being by its great length well adapted for those purposes.

"The palmated parts of the horns are farther excavated by the savages, and converted into ladles, which will hold a pint."

—Thomas Pennant (1726-1798), Arctic Zoology (2 vols., London: H. Hughes, 1784-85), 2:19.

Next most conspicuous, and undeniably intimidating, are those massive, meant-for-maiming, palmate—shovel-shaped—antlers that sometimes spread six feet from tip to tip. Then there's the in-your-face attitude. The crouched stance, the hunched-up shoulders; the nose as formidable as a Humvee's hood; the underslung jaw; the upper lip bulging like a cowboy's crammed with chaw; the brow-beating glare from eyes absurdly small for such a big head. But the ears are proportionally large. Those cloven five-by-six-inch hooves can be deadly defensive weapons. The voice matches it all: the bull's, a bellow, a croak, and a bark; the cow's, a quavering moan cut off with a cough, or a grunt to call her calves. The effect of a slight shake of its head is amplified by its dewlap, the flap of loose skin that dangles from its throat. All in all, you'd rather not meet one, even in a nightmare.

The long legs and short neck keep the moose from grazing on grass as do most ruminants.5 The moose is built to feed in marshes where it can get high-protein plants rich in sodium. The plants it seeks are prime for only about 120 days a year, so each animal must consume an immense amount in order to survive and propagate the species the rest of the year, when it must get by on the twigs of brush on the margins of marshes and streams. These circumstance prevent moose from gathering in large herds, which may be one reason the Corps of Discovery came upon so few of them. They also explain why moose favor alluvial habitats created during the most recent ice age, which in turn is why the Corps' encounters took place where they did.

The moose's movements seem clumsy. In high gear, its gangling gait, more than eight feet at a stride, with head carried low to keep antlers from snagging on tree branches, is tireless for mile after mile at a steady 35 mph. Its main reason for running is flight from its only natural threat, the wolfpack. Humans are merely annoyances, for the most part, except during mating season, when a bull moose is mean enough to match its looks, and any moving mammal that strays into its territory is courting trouble. People who frequent the lower valleys in the Northern Rockies would just as soon meet a grizzly on the trail as a bull moose in rut. In winter, Anchorage, Alaska, and its environs are crowded with as many as a thousand moose of both sexes, plus calves in early spring. The attraction is refuge from hungry wolves, and relief from deep snow. The human citizens are no more than two-legged nuisances that have to learn to keep a respectful distance; if a cow and her calves visit a back yard, it's theirs for as long as they want to stay.

A beast of that size and temperament has few enemies. Bio-lore has it that once in the Alaskan bush country a helicopter pilot trying to deliver a game biologist to a research site was obliged to dodge the flailing hooves of a cow reaching on hind legs to ward off the noisy intruder. Moose quickly learned that railroad tracks and motor highways are conveniences when meadow snows are especially deep or crusty. A confrontation between a moose and a locomotive isn't much of a contest, of course. On the other hand, the sensible autoist cheerfully gives Alces alces the right-of-way. In the 1960s, after the Lewis and Clark Highway (U.S. 12) was finally opened all the way from Missoula, Montana to Lewiston, Idaho, truck drivers passing through the vicinity of the marshy meadow at the confluence of Colt Killed Creek and Brushy Fork learned to keep an eye peeled for the antlered obstacles. Occasionally a bull moose would claim all rights to the comfort and convenience of the plowed pavement, and once in a while, local folklore has it, a duly chastised trucker would arrive in town with hoofprints on the grill, or a busted headlight.

In short, that Moose-deer may have sensed a threat in Lewis's Canis familiaris ("familiar dog"), and Seaman had good reason to be nervous.

All this having been said, however, it is important to understand that this species, like nearly every other one, has evolved during the past 2.6 million years or so to thrive under a unique and narrow set of environmental conditions. Those long legs combined with the short neck make it comfortable for the moose to wade into marshes to feed on high-protein, sodium-rich underwater plants. Feeler-hairs on the oversized nose enable it to locate the best plants in the murkiest ponds. One result is that a cow converts those riches, supplemented by inorganic sulfur from natural salt licks, into a viscuous milk that is so nutritious it enables her nursing calves to gain weight at an averate rate of 2.2 pounds per day, leading them to self-sufficiency within a few months after birth.

Those long legs and powerful shoulders and haunches make all four sharp hooves potent weapons against most predators, and also ensure escape at a swift long-range run, at more than eight feet per stride, stepping over obstacles such as downed trees, which pursuing wolves or grizzlies must leap, climb, or dodge. For an extra margin of protection from its worst enemy, the wolf, the skin around the moose's neck is nearly an inch thick.

In addition, it appears that when a bull isn't in rut or a cow isn't protecting her calves, a moose can be docile enough for domestication, the difficulty of feeding them well the year around being the main drawback. Archaeological evidence has indicated that from the Neolithic Period through the Middle Ages moose were often used as draft and pack animals.

The deforestation of large expanses of North America's boreal latitudes has provided new habitats, and expanding urbanization has provided more wolf-free refuges, at the expense only of human safety at certain times of the year. At the same time, the possibilities for an increase in moose population have collided with a parallel growth in the population of white-tailed deer in those same habitats, who have brought deadly diseases and debilitating parasites with them.6

1. Moulton, 3:432, 435, 438.

2. George Louis Leclerc Buffon (1707-1788), Buffon's Natural History containing a theory of the earth, a general history of man, of the brute creation, and of vegetables, minerals, &c. (10 vols., London, 1797), 8:117. Buffon theorized that the animals of North America were smaller than those of Europe because they were younger, and privately asked Thomas Jefferson for his comments. Jefferson's response took the form of his only book, Notes on the State of Virginia (1787).

3. The traveler was Samuel Purchas (1577?-1626), whose travelogue, Purchas his Pilgrimage, or, Relations of the world and the religions observed in all ages and places, was published in London in 1614. Algonkian was once the largest family of Indian languages. It was shared by tribes throughout the eastern U.S. and parts of the West, as well as the southern half of Canada.

4. Oliver Goldsmith (1740?-1774), An History of the Earth, and Animated Nature (8 vols., London, 1774), 2:82. Goldsmith is mainly remembered for his sentimental novel, The Vicar of Wakefield

5. Ruminants are ungulates (hooved animals with two or four toes) whose stomachs are divided into four compartments, and who chew "cuds" of regurgitated food.

6. Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia (5 vols., New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, 1990), 5:229-42.

Funded in part by a grant from the Montana Cultural Trust