Moose Magic

Hunters will tell you that a moose is a wily and ferocious forest creature. Nonsense. A moose is a cow drawn by a three-year-old.

~Bill Bryson

For many years, Moose have been one of the more difficult of Yellowstone’s large mammals to find. The best place was usually at the Northeast entrance or in the small town of Silver Gate just beyond that gate. This trip had Moose aplenty, with sightings on almost every day we were in the park, ranging from the upper part of Lamar Valley to near the Northeast entrance. The area known as Round Prairie was particularly productive and we saw a record (for us) of seven of these magnificent creatures there one day. Unfortunately, our best views happened before our group of students arrived, though they also saw Moose, but at greater distances (except for one quick roadside spotting on our last full day in the park).

Needless to say, on our multi-moose day at Round Prairie, there was a crowd. We got lucky and pulled into a spot in the closest pullout as someone was leaving. Here are some images of the group of five Moose close to us (another two were far out in the meadow in another willow thicket).

A young bull tilts his head to thread his antlers between tree branches

At first glance, I thought we had two bulls and three cows feeding in front of us. When I looked with binoculars I could see that one of the largest animals was actually a bull that had dropped its antlers. Bull Moose shed their antlers annually anywhere from late November until March. Mature males tend to shed the earliest, soon after the fall mating season (the rut). That makes sense as you probably wouldn’t want to carry around those giant armaments (they can weigh over 50 pounds and span almost 5 feet) any longer than necessary.

Bulls start growing their new set of antlers a few weeks after dropping the old ones. A bull’s antlers increase in size (the number of points, span, and size of the palms – the flattened portions) each year until its prime (usually about 5 or 6 years of age). Young bulls start off with only a few points and small palms as a yearling. The number of points and the size of the palms will grow each season with the antlers usually forming a protective arch over the face during the prime years, preventing damage to the bull’s eyes when competing for mates. As he ages past his prime, the antlers tend to get smaller each year, with fewer points and smaller palms.

An antler-less bull feeding
The largest antlered bull showing how the antlers emerge from the head just above each eye. Antlers are a sign of rank and strength during the fall mating season. Younger bulls are usually scared off by the size of a mature bull’s rack, so fighting is avoided. Evenly matched bulls may lock antlers in a shoving match to fight for a female.
Here is a close-up of the bull that had already dropped his antlers. You can see the point of antler connection to the skull, called the pedicle, as a somewhat circle-shaped scar above the eye. After the rut, the male’s testosterone levels drop, activating specialized cells called osteoclasts. These weaken the connection of the antlers to the pedicle and the antlers eventually drop off.
Another view showing where the antlers were attached. When an antler first drops off, the pedicle may bleed a bit before clotting and drying up

At one point, three bulls started running toward the road as they shoved one another and acted a bit aggressive. There’s nothing like a running bull moose (weighing up to 1100 pounds, being nine feet from nose to tail, and 7 feet at the shoulders) to get a gang of photographers to move (although I thought a few of them did not clear out of the way fast enough for their own good considering there were three bull moose running toward them!). Two of the bulls went across the road and then returned to the willows to feed with apparently no more ill will between them. Moose tend to be solitary animals, but will congregate, especially in winter, at good food sources. The willow stands in Round Prairie offer that prized resource.

A group of Moose suddenly moved quickly toward the road (photo by Melissa Dowland)
Two bulls that crossed the road soon moved back and started feeding
A cow and calf feed near a bull in a willow thicket
Here you can clearly see the dangling triangle of skin below the chin called a dewlap (also called a bell). The dewlap’s function is not known though theories vary from heat exchange to communication during the rut. During courtship, a bull will rub the cow with his chin (called chinning) and the dewlap may transfer scent to the female.

A Moose’s winter diet consists almost entirely of twigs. In fact, the word moose comes from a Native American word that means “twig eater”. We watched them browsing the tips of the willow shrubs and a close look would show them both breaking off the twig tips to eat and pulling on them as if to strip off the bark.

A Moose browsing on the willow twigs

Here is a short video clip of Moose eating twigs. The falling snow made it difficult to get a sharp image but it is still interesting to watch them feed.

– Moose feeding on willows in Round Prairie

Our final Moose was one spotted by one of the students as we headed back through the northern part of the park on our last full day (photo by Melissa Dowland)

Though Moose look gangly and awkward to many, I am fascinated by this largest member of the deer family. I hope their population continues to grow in Yellowstone so other visitors may also marvel at these magical beasts.

15 thoughts on “Moose Magic

  1. Absolutely beautiful animals and photographs. So glad you got to see so many on this trip. The process of antler dropping is so similar to leaf dropping on deciduous trees. Very cool.

    • Thanks, Deb. I agree, shedding leaves and antlers seems very similar. I did not know until now that the mature bulls tend to shed earlier. I guess their testosterone drops significantly after expending all that energy during the rut.

  2. That was a wonderful read and I loved looking at those photographs of these beautiful majestic animals. Thanks for sharing these posts.

  3. Wow, you got some really great photos! This was an interesting read. Moose are such beautiful animals but I didn’t know that much about them. I learned a lot from this!

  4. Thanks, Diana. One thing about this somewhat antiquated thing called blogging, I learn a lot every time I share photos and information. I see things out there that make me want to know more about the plants and animals.

  5. Loved the information in this post, Mike. I’ve only seen moose, at a distance, twice. These photos are marvelous, and I especially liked learning that bit about the origin of their name.

  6. Wonderful pictures, Mike! We have not seen them in the park in spring months for many years (we visit about every other year). There were about 1,000 in the 1970s but now there are less than 200. Lucky you for seeing so many at once!

  7. Very educational! Hard to imagine how the antler thing came about … why so big and heavy … nice that they drop them when “done” … nice that they protect eyes … so much mass in the large antlers and from eating just twigs! Nature is so wonderful and your photos convey that so well!

  8. Pingback: Still Hanging On | Roads End Naturalist

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