Scientists challenge woolly heart after autopsy moose experiment

Across an open field in a remote and rugged part of Newfoundland, a family of grey seals look on as a female moose walks near her herd.

The Moosehide bag of the mule was recently removed and the matured moose carcass will be used in this trial, in which 16 boards will be transported several metres along the rocky trails, underneath a canopy of trees, to allow it to be carefully unloaded in a method all moose experts agree will best preserve the jawbones for future research.

Some of the boards will be used for identification, others to guide scientists in determining the diet and size of the moose as well as their reproductive and reproductive status – a kind of historical record the habitat specialists hope will allow them to more accurately assess how wildlife and climate change are changing in the region.

Barbara Patterson, a University of New Brunswick ecologist who led the study of the moose jawbones, said in this particular area, the moose populations have recently declined, possibly in part as a result of Nunavut.

The moose were on government reserves and private land in the 1980s and 1990s, and had declined to a total of 400 in 1993 before increasing slowly. Since 2013, the population has become unidentifiable, Patterson said. The problem is far more complex than habitat loss, she added, noting that the moose that are living far too closely to their calf has led to self-poisoning of the animals.

“It can be a benign way of killing and killing it so often is dangerous,” she said.

Jawbone specimen. Photograph: Family Research Centre

Recent questions have also been raised about white-tailed deer, because their numbers have grown to become a larger portion of the local wildlife than in the past. The Canadian Wildlife Service says it does not know for sure why there is a recent increase in deer, but speculates that it may have something to do with longer daylight hours resulting from milder winters.

Patterson said her scientific team is studying the nutritional needs of the moose, trying to find out why they are trying to protect their calves, why some individuals may be taking disease, and why others are self-poisoning. These findings, she added, will help future park officials better understand the impact that climate change may have on the local moose population and its young animals.

The researchers have planned four different types of experiments to ensure the specimens contain a representative “bodyplate” of the victim’s jaw, so that they can be compared to historical records. The most dramatic experiment will take place in the lab, where bones will be cut out of the dead moose, stained with gold – to reflect the tan colour of the muscle tissue – and photographed. The set of fossils may be used as anatomical research tools and used for wildlife identification purposes. The researchers will then compare their results with the native remains that have been preserved in the moose pottery until this research.

The next several months will be stressful for Patterson and her team as they work closely with one of the country’s most beautiful and elusive wildlife species. The international committee for the recovery of grizzly bears may ultimately decide whether moose bones can be used for forensic evidence after the team has completed their analysis.

Stacey Dalman, chair of the board of the Mule Wood Board, says she is excited by the new discoveries the team’s efforts are helping reveal about the wildlife in the area, and they hope to do more research in the future.

“This will give us great value as we understand how moose are reproducing and the impacts of climate change,” she said.

Patterson said that, as researcher, it is important to tease out why moose populations have been declining and what new research is needed to learn what is causing the mysterious decline.

“When you come across some good data, it’s really exciting to come across it,” she said. “But when you know it could be used as a tool for wildlife conservation, it becomes even more rewarding.”

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