The Science Behind Algonquin's Animals - Moose Survey Research in Algonquin Provincial Park
  Research Projects Moose Survey Research in Algonquin Provincial Park

Common Name Moose
Scientific Name Alces alces
Other Names Elk (in Europe and Asia), swamp donkey, and twig eater (see below).

General Appearance: Some say Moose appear to have been constructed from body parts left over from other animals. However, the Moose's unique look hides a number of physiological adaptations for life in the northern forest. Moose are about the size of a horse, with a long brownish-black head and snout, large ears, and a dewlap (or bell) hanging from the throat. Moose have legs that are about 200 centimetres long, humped shoulders, and a short stubby tail.

Males and females can be told apart during the summer months by the existence of antlers on the heads of males (called bulls) and the lack of antlers on females (called cows). During the winter months, after antlers are shed, females can be recognized by the colour of the snout which is light brown, and a white patch of hair on their rump called the vulva patch.

Did you know?

  • A male Moose grows and then sheds its antlers each year (unlike horns which remain throughout an animal's life). Moose antlers are the fastest type of growing bone known on the planet. A Moose may grow a set of antlers weighing up to 25 kilograms in just five months!

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Weight: Male Moose weigh an average of 500 kilograms, and females average 425 kilograms.

Migration: Moose do not migrate. They are year-round residents of Algonquin Park.

Food Sources: Moose are herbivores and feed on aquatic vegetation, assorted ground plants, leaves, and twigs of both conifers and deciduous trees and shrubs. Moose have been recorded to eat up to 20 kilograms of twigs in just one day in the winter, and an amazing 50 kilograms of green vegetation in one summer's day!

Sounds: Moose are usually silent during most of the year, but during the rut (mating season) [typically mid-September in Algonquin Park], Moose will use sound to communicate. Male Moose make a guttural "ga-wunk!" sound, while females make a long drawn-out bawling moan.

Listen to the call of a male (bull) Moose

Listen to the call of a female (cow) Moose

Major Predators: Wolves and bears constitute the two main predators of Moose in Algonquin Park. Healthy adult Moose are relatively safe from predation as their size and strength makes them a formidable opponent. The old, sick, injured, or very young may be preyed on by wolves, but in Algonquin Park the majority of Moose eaten by wolves have died of other causes.

Black Bears will prey on Moose calves in the early summer when they are the most vulnerable. Despite this vulnerability, a mother Moose will aggressively ward off any attack to her calf.

Research Habitat: Moose are found in the boreal forest covering much of Canada, from the Pacific coast, east to Newfoundland and Labrador, north to the tree line. Moose can also be found in the northern United States, and south through to the north central Rocky Mountains. Moose are biologically recent immigrants to North America. Biologists believe that Moose travelled to North America from Eurasia to present-day Alaska during the last glaciation about 11,000 years ago. Moose can be found still living in the boreal forest of Europe and Asia. In Algonquin Park, Moose are commonly found in spring along the Highway 60 Corridor where they feed on the salt-rich waters that collect in roadside ditches from winter road maintenance operations. As soon as aquatic vegetation grows, Moose can be found feeding on aquatic vegetation in beaver ponds, rivers, and shallow areas of lakes. In fall and winter, Moose feed on leaves (when available) and the youngest twigs of trees and shrubs, and will often spend time in dense coniferous forests during the coldest winter months.

Learn more about Algonquin Park's five major habitats.

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Research Questions

1. How many Moose are there in Algonquin Provincial Park?

This is a question that Algonquin Park staff are asked repeatedly throughout the year. To get an idea of Algonquin's Moose population, Norm Quinn, Park Biologist, conducts an aerial Moose survey typically every other year. "My work with Moose populations follows on a great deal of work in the Park aiming to understand what determines the numbers of Moose on the landscape - or what biologists call ‘population regulation'", says Quinn. "Counting Moose from aircraft when they are on their winter range is the most common method of estimating moose numbers in North America. It is a relatively simple and effective way to estimate the population of many species present during winter months, but it takes a biologist with a strong stomach." The process of determining the Moose population in the Park starts long before the Park Biologist gets into the air. In Algonquin Park, Moose surveys are conducted a minimum of every two years. In the fall of a Moose-survey year, Norm Quinn lays out blocks that measure 10 kilometres long by 2.5 kilometres wide throughout the Park. There are 57 blocks in the Park, 34 of these plots on the west side dominated by deciduous forest and 23 on the east side dominated by coniferous forest. In January, when conditions are optimal, observers board a helicopter and begin the survey. Observers typically spend all daytime hours flying multiple passes (transects) through different survey blocks in the Park. Observers in the helicopter are constantly on the lookout for both Moose and their tracks. Should the pilot fly over fresh tracks of a Moose, the pilot, with the help of the keen-eyed observers, follows the tracks to the animal(s). When the Moose are located, the number of animals is counted, bulls are aged based on antler size (class 1, class 2, class 3), sex is noted (bull, cow, or calf). All information is then recorded on specially designed data sheets. The helicopter pilot then resumes the search for more Moose on that transect within the survey block. Norm Quinn, the helicopter pilot, and two other observers are in the air every day that conditions permit. Even with good conditions the Moose survey may last until mid-February. When 20% of the 57 blocks have been covered, there is enough data to estimate the population. It is not practical to count Moose in all the survey blocks, and it is even more unrealistic to survey the entire Park. Weather conditions, time, and a limited budget all restrict the amount of time in the air for the Park Biologist conducting the Moose survey. Despite these limitations by sampling only about 20% of all plots, and by using a complicated formula, Norm is able to extrapolate his results from the sampled blocks to get an accurate estimate of the entire Park's Moose population. One of the downsides of extrapolating results to the entire Park is error. For example, in 1985, the Park Biologist was 90% sure that the Park's population of Moose was between 2533 and 4533 animals. Now this may seem like a large range, but when compared to just 10 years earlier, the population of Moose in the Park was between 1455 and 2155. Therefore, bi-annual Moose surveys do help biologists determine trends over time. In a perfect world, all wildlife biologists would have unlimited time and resources, but in reality you can only fly so often, and in the case of the Moose survey you have a small window during the mid-winter period in which to complete the work. In some years, variables like the weather cooperate, and in other years, they don't. In 2003, Norm Quinn and his Moose survey observers determined that there were 3490 (plus or minus 628) Moose in Algonquin Park. So the next time someone asks "How many Moose are there in Algonquin Park?", you can let them know 3490 plus or minus 628!

View a Video of a Moose Survey In Progress

2. Is the number of moose increasing or decreasing in Algonquin Provincial Park?

If you were to visit Algonquin Park in the early 1900s, seeing a Moose would be very rare. Today in Algonquin Park, during May and June, Park visitors regularly see Moose standing or feeding along the roadsides. Some lucky observers have even reported seeing more than fifty Moose between the Park's West and East gates in just one trip!

So what is going on? Why, then, have Moose populations changed so dramatically? Norm Quinn has ideas, based upon his work with the Moose survey (described above) and his knowledge of the forest and the other species living in the Park. There are several factors that have changed over the years to explain the change in the Moose population. The first of these has to do with the difference in forest cover in the Park during the early 1900s and today.

If you were able to time travel back to the early 1900s, Algonquin Park would have been a very different looking place. In this early Algonquin Park, species such as White-tailed Deer flourished because of the open habitat. Much of Algonquin, prior to it becoming a Park had been logged or burned over, resulting in open spaces suitable for the survival of deer. In fact, some estimates of the deer population within the Park in the early 1900s have been between 30,000 and 100,000 animals, a population that is unheard of today.

Since the early 1900s, better forestry management practices within the Park have allowed a more closed forest environment to develop. In fact, Algonquin has more trees today than it did when the Park was established in 1893. This drastic habitat change resulted in poorer habitat for deer, and thus, fewer surviving animals. On the other hand, the thicker forest conditions were more suitable for Moose which increased in population.

Another factor that has reduced deer populations is Algonquin's long, cold, and snowy winter conditions. In Algonquin Park, White-tailed Deer are nearing the northern edge of their range. This means that in very cold and snowy winters many deer do not survive as happened during the late 1970s. This in turn reduces the deer population.

Yet another factor in this story of Moose populations was noticed as early as the 1930s when researchers outside the Park boundaries noticed Moose with a strange neurological disorder that made the Moose stagger about, eventually making the hind legs inoperable and eventually leading to the death of the Moose.

In 1964, wildlife researcher Roy Anderson, of the University of Guelph, discovered a link between a parasite called Brainworm (Parelaphostrongylus tenuis) which lived in White-tailed Deer with seemingly no ill-effects, and Algonquin's Moose. The worm is passed from the deer out through their feces. Snails feeding on the feces ingest the worm and Moose that accidentally eat an infected snail while browsing then become infected. This 8-centimetre-long round worm eventually kills Moose that have ingested it. (For more on the life cycle of the Brainworm see The Elucidation of the Biology of the Meningeal Worm.) It was this relationship that helped to explain one of the reasons why the Moose population fluctuates so dramatically in Algonquin Park, and in other areas where Moose and White-tailed Deer coexist. In Algonquin Park in the early 1900s, when the population of deer was high, the Moose population likely suffered from the effects of Brainworm. However, when populations of deer dropped in Algonquin as a result of thicker forests, there were fewer deer to pass Brainworms onto Moose living in the same area. Therefore, as deer populations fluctuate, so do the numbers of Brainworms in the environment and thus the number of Moose.

Another parasite that affects Moose in Algonquin Park is also very small. The Winter Tick (Dermacentor albipictus) is about the size of a grain of sand during the autumn when they are seeking a warm, food-rich place to spend the winter. These small Winter Ticks climb onto vegetation with front legs outstretched waiting for a passing Moose. Once aboard a Moose, these small ticks burrow down through the thick hair of the Moose to its skin. Then the Winter Tick pushes its sucking mouth parts through the skin of the Moose and begins to feed on the blood. This feeding continues until spring, when the small-grain-of-sand-sized tick has grown to 10,000 times it original size to about the size of a grape! These parasites on the hides of Moose undoubtedly tax a Moose's system, but it is typically not the Winter Tick that directly kills the mighty Moose. In fact, it's the actions of the Moose that can seal its own fate. As ticks grow, they begin to irritate the Moose, and the Moose begins to rub against anything it can " whether a tree, rock or even using its own hind feet. Moose rub so often and so hard that they can remove large patches of hair, especially around their shoulders and sides. It is this removal of hair that can lead to the death of the Moose as a result of hypothermia (or getting extremely cold) during cold, rainy, spring conditions. In years like 1999, Moose in Algonquin Park were heavily infested with Winter Tick, with some animals having between 50,000 to 100,000 ticks on their body! As a result, high Moose populations from the 1990s were significantly reduced as many Moose died throughout the Park during the spring of 1999. Since then, Moose populations have stabilized and remain strong throughout the Park.

So to answer the question we started with, "Is the number of Moose increasing or decreasing in Algonquin Park?" " It really depends upon the period of time you look at. Despite the Moose being Algonquin's largest creature, they are still subject to many factors that can limit their population. Whether it's the habitat, Brainworm, or Winter Tick, Norm Quinn knows that Moose population fluctuations are a normal part of the Algonquin environment, and Algonquin is one of the best places in Ontario to see Moose.

Suggested Reading
Educators: Learn more about Algonquin’s habitats, download readings and worksheets from the Educator Resources section of the Web Site, or you may also learn more through the following publications:

Mammals of Algonquin Provincial Park
Fifty-three species of mammals have been found in Algonquin Provincial Park. This book explains the life history of these mammals. The many illustrations help to make it easier to identify them, and the book also contains a useful reference chart for distinguishing tracks and scats.

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Moose Country: Saga of the Woodland Moose
Written about Moose in general, Algonquin Park is highlighted as one of the most popular viewing areas. Wonderful photographs and informative text, a must have for the nature enthusiast.

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The Raven Talks About Deer and Moose
This book contains eighteen articles about deer and moose that originally appeared in Algonquin Park's newsletter, The Raven, between its inception in 1960 and 2002. This promises to be a great resource for anyone interested in understanding the biology of these animals and the complex relationships between them.

more info

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