Moose muscle mass matters: Wildlife study may influence game management decisions

Posted: Friday, October 08, 2010

Plentiful moose populations mean more hunting opportunities, but determining the cause of unhealthy populations can be a difficult task.

Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
Curious moose eye a visitor to the Moose Research Center near Sterling several years ago. A study under way at the facility looks to determine how much protein moose need.

Department of Fish and Game biologist John Crouse is studying the levels of lean muscle mass in moose. Crouse said that his research will develop a technique that will test if poor nutrition is a factor in scarce moose populations.

The study began last winter at the Kenai Moose Research Center and will continue for two more years. If the data prove valid, the department will use the technique to gather field data.

Right now, Crouse is studying how much lean mass makes a healthy moose. To do this, the biologist said that he uses an ultrasound to determine levels of body fat. Then the biologists inject water deuterium, which has an extra hydrogen, to detect the amount of water in the moose's body.

The moose are weighed monthly to learn how their muscle mass changes seasonally. Crouse said that their body fat percentage fluctuates from 30 percent of the animal's total weight to 3 percent. The changes in muscle are unclear at this point. Studying moose raised in captivity removes variables, like digesting food, when gathering scientific data because researchers dictate the ungulate's daily routine.

Currently researchers are looking for a correlation between nitrogen, a nutrient found in protein, and muscle mass. This information could eventually become the standard when analyzing moose urea samples. Crouse said that Fish and Game could test wild fecal or urinal discharges found in the wild for nitrogen. The data will tell the department if the moose are healthy or not. If nitrogen levels are normal, then poor nutrition is an unlikely cause of small moose populations.

Department area biologist Jeff Selinger said that wolves preying on calves, human hunting or an uneven ratio of cows to bulls could create relatively low populations if poor nutrition isn't to blame. That information could lend to the development of predator management programs and changes in hunting regulations, among other things.

Although local foliage may appear healthy, the ungulates may not gain much from foraging. Selinger said that older plants develop chemicals that inhibit digestion, instead of storing nutrients that will aid in muscle growth. In addition, mature plants can grow higher than moose can reach. If plants appear healthy but moose have below average nitrogen levels, the department may let natural fires burn brush or plan controlled fires to reinvigorate plant life.

"It's like adding fertilizer to the garden," Selinger said.

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