Wednesday, June 11, 2008

All About Moose Part 1: Newer Than Indians

No, still not blogging about Mountain Mahogany. Today is Moose Day, and for a couple of good reasons. First, I had my 2nd Moose encounter of the season yesterday up above Jeremy Ranch. Second, mtn biking in the early AM or PM you see more Moose in the Wasatch in the summer than any other large animal. Third, I’ve been blogging overwhelmingly about plants, some about birds, but almost nothing about mammals. And fourth, I got some nice shots, finally redeeming myself as a wannabe wildlife photographer.

I probably see Moose, Alces alces, a dozen-plus times a year, almost always while mountain biking, though I did see a couple XC skiing back in March.

Tangent: Mtn biking in the early morning or early evening is the best way to see Moose in the Wasatch in the summer. Most of the summertime riding is between 7,000 and 9,000 feet, which is exactly where Moose hang out in the summer. A mtn biker covers far more distance than a hiker in a given outing, increasing his/her chances of intersecting a Moose’s path, and usually travels fairly quickly without generating a lot of noise, so chances are better of seeing a Moose before it heads away from you.

In fact Moose are so common in the Wasatch that you come to almost take them for granted, which is unfortunate, because they’re pretty amazing animals. An adult Moose east something like 50 lbs of food per day, in country where I can’t even dig up a single edible corm. And Moose can be dangerous- supposedly more people are killed by Moose than bears in North America. (Can't remember where I read that- it's probably bogus, but it's a good attention-grabber...)

Everyone knows what a Moose is and looks like, and other than re-hash a few nature-oriented websites, it may seem like there’s nothing new or interesting to tell about Moose in Utah. But there is.

How Moose Got Here

Here’s the coolest thing, that hardly anybody is aware of: There were no Moose in North America until around 14,000 years ago. And no Moose South of the ice sheets until less than 13,000 years ago. That means there were no Moose in Utah before there were people in Utah, and what’s more, that might not be a coincidence.

Prior to 13,000 years ago, North America had a way, way, different set of megafauna, or big animals tooling around. Not just Mammoths, but mastodons, giant sloths, dire wolves, saber-tooths, and a whole mess of other large animals than all went extinct in a span of just 300 or 400 years. The cause of the extinction is still debated, but it is suspiciously coincident with the arrival of human hunters.. (This is called the Overkill Hypothesis, and it’s the most commonly accepted reason for the megafauna extinction.)

Before the extinction, there were big moose/deer-like creatures living in North America, but they weren’t modern Moose, Alces alces. But after the extinction, the biological “moose-niche” was essentially vacated, and Moose, which had entered North America via Beringia (around the same time as humans) migrated down through the gap in the receding ice sheets to colonize the rest of Northern North America.

What’s even cooler is that this same process happened with several other large mammals. Prior to 13,000 years ago there were no Grizzlies in the Lower 48. Instead there was a now-extinct type of bear called the Short-faced bear. The Short-faced Bear was a running bear, faster, bigger and meaner than any Grizzly alive today. After the Short-faced bear disappeared, Grizzlies from Alaska and the Canadian Arctic migrated South and filled the “bad-ass-bear-niche” in the lower 48. Prior to the extinction, the Dire Wolf roamed the lower 48. Like a modern wolf, but bigger, stronger (and presumably meaner.) When it disappeared, modern wolves migrated southward and filled the “hunting canine” niche.

Side note: Interestingly, it seems that something similar may be going on over the past century. As wolves have been eliminated from most of the continental US, Coyotes have thrived, filling the “hunting canine” niche and colonizing areas- such as the Eastern states- they never previously inhabited.

This whole megafauna-extinction-and-alternative-mammal-recolonization story is a great one, because it provide another perspective of that “intermediate timescale” change we’ve talked about in looking at a number of plants, including Creosote, Joshua Trees and Ponderosa Pine. The untouched, biological “wilderness” as we think of it in the American West is really a pretty recent construct, more dynamic than static, constantly molded by people and climate.

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