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GOIN' SOUTH
Bil Gilbert
June 11, 1979
Call him the Marco Polo of moosedom. Two years ago he left his range in Minnesota and moseyed down into Missouri, puzzling zoologists while entertaining the citizenry
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June 11, 1979

Goin' South

Call him the Marco Polo of moosedom. Two years ago he left his range in Minnesota and moseyed down into Missouri, puzzling zoologists while entertaining the citizenry

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The range of most species coincides generally with the range of graduate students.

So goes an aphorism used by wiseacre natural historians to point out that our knowledge of other creatures is neither so complete or accurate as it is often presented as being. Neat, firmly drawn distribution maps in zoological texts will indicate that armadillos, mountain lions or pine voles inhabit a specific region because, within that region, observers whose credentials authorities accept have seen the beasts in question and perhaps even collected their hides and heads. In all probability, other members of the species are located in adjacent, similar habitat areas, waiting for the graduate students to catch up with them, but this is no more than an educated guess. An even shakier guess, however, is that the creatures are not in places outside the accepted range (nor in places not indicated on range maps).

When it comes to more complicated questions—why certain animals are where they are and not elsewhere; what their collective and individual motivations are and, if they have such things, their perceptions, pleasures, hopes, fears and ambitions—we are much further at sea. Despite our species' abiding curiosity about other animals (rivaled in persistence and intensity only by our enduring interest in the weather, theology and the opposite sex), we still may be less knowledgeable about the inner natures of other bloods than we are about the surface of the moon.

For working purposes, we proceed as if our reasonable assumptions and plausible explanations are, in fact, facts. Often we get away with this because we seem to have made shrewd guesses. But now and then something occurs that is so unreasonable and so implausible that we are forced to acknowledge another area of great mystery. Take some recent developments among the moose.

Mammals of North America, by Victor H. Cahalane, a distinguished zoologist and former chief naturalist of the U.S. Park Service, is a popular, well-regarded text. In it, the range of the moose is described as "The coniferous forests of northern North America; south of the limit of trees, from Nova Scotia and the Adirondack Mountains west to northern Minnesota, central Saskatchewan, southern James Bay, and the Mackenzie River delta to Bristol Bay and Renal Peninsula of Alaska. South in the Rocky Mountains to central Wyoming, Idaho, and (occasionally) northern Washington."

Within this range, Cahalane writes, the moose is typically found in timber or wetlands foraging on aquatic plants and high-standing bush, "and usually spends its entire life in a relatively small area. The only time that a bull takes a trip is during the mating season, when he may bestir himself out of his little territory of five square miles to track down a cow or two."

More academic and technical works provide greater detail, but generally this is the official state-of-the-science moose line. It's probably a good enough one for most moose—but not for all of them. Events of the past several years demonstrate that it inadequately describes the potential of this species. In the Midwest the range of the moose must now be extended from the Minnesota- Ontario border—long regarded as the most southerly moose habitat—to the environs of metropolitan St. Louis. While, as Cahalane says, the average moose-in-the-woods may travel only a few miles from its home thickets, the cruising range of an individual can be 1,000 miles or more. Guidebook moose may continue to be content crashing around in coniferous forests, wading in bogs and feeding on pond lilies and sapling tops, but other moose, we now know, can maintain themselves in good condition and spirit on the relatively treeless prairies, can gracefully leap six-foot fences and can be happy foraging on multiflora roses, coralberries and winter wheat.

Moose lore, from now on, will be incomplete without this information (and a good many other curious addenda) because of the activities of an extraordinary animal, a Marco Polo of moosedom, a Magellan of its kind, who for more than two years has been wandering about the Midwest, puzzling zoologists and vastly entertaining the citizenry in a number of heretofore mooseless regions. His travels have been so remarkable and his adventures so picaresque that it simply will not do to speak of him here simply as a moose. He must be distinguished, as he has distinguished himself, from all others. Call him the Missouri Kid.

Like the inception of English rock groups, flying-saucer persons, Democratic presidential candidates and many other celebrious creatures who descend on us unexpectedly, the origins of the Missouri Kid are obscure, and it is now probably too late to do anything but speculate about what they truly are. A good many off-the-wall suggestions—that he started out from a commercial moose works or a zoo, or was a tame roadside attraction—have checked out negative. The only logical possibility remaining is that the Kid was conceived and born someplace in the Big Woods that stretch between Lake Superior and Lake-of-the-Woods along both sides of the U.S.- Canada boundary. If that is so, there is reason to assume—but no incontestable proof—that he came into the world in the spring of 1975.

"Calves are generally born in May and stay with the cows through their entire first year," says Pat Karns, a research biologist and moose specialist employed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. ( Minnesota has been the only midland state that needed a professional moose person, but there may be future openings in this field in other states. In the meantime Karns' zoological colleagues from states south of Minnesota have been calling him for background reports on mooseology.) "The next May, when the cow calves again, the yearling will leave," Karns says. "If it is a male, it quite often forms an attachment with a mature bull. They'll travel and forage together throughout the summer. In the fall, the old bull will enter rut, and he'll turn on the young male who has been tagging along, drub him and drive him away. That is when these youngsters often start wandering. Now and then we'll find them two or three hundred miles south of where they belong, in the farming country below the Twin Cities. However," he adds, referring specifically to the Missouri Kid, "the distance this one has traveled, assuming he came from northern Minnesota—and where else could he come from?—is unique, so far as I know."

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