Nursing moose calf tips off mother's gender

Posted: Friday, December 10, 2004

ANCHORAGE A cow moose with antlers an extremely rare animal in North America appears to have survived hunting season on the Seward Peninsula, according to biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

When the animal was first spotted in the fall, biologists worried it might get shot during a two-week, bulls-only hunting season in the Nome area. They immediately began alerting hunters to be on the lookout for a ''bull'' accompanied by a calf.

''Don't shoot!'' warned a Fish and Game handout with a picture of the animal. ''It may look like a legal, young bull but it's not. That's a cow moose sporting a deformed set of antlers and she has a young calf with her.''

''It was the talk of the town,'' said Sue Steinacher of Fish and Game in Nome.

The calf, said wildlife biologist Peter Bente, is what first gave the cow away. Nome residents Vickie and Noel Tanner had been watching what they thought was an old-looking bull with smallish antlers in the Dry Creek area when the calf tried to nurse.

According to Steinacher, the Tanners then looked closer and saw that the ''bull'' in question had udders.

Biologists subsequently notified hunters to avoid shooting the rare, antlered cow to protect the calf. Moose calves that lose their mothers have little chance of making it through the winter. The young moose depend on their significantly larger mothers to break trail through snow, enabling them to move about to find willow browse.

Because the antlered cow survived the hunting season, biologists have no carcass that would allow them to study what physiological malfunction may have caused this cow to grow antlers. Bente and biologist Kate Persons have theorized that some sort of hormonal imbalance might have caused the cow to produce enough testosterone to spark antler growth, but they admit that's largely speculation.

Antlered cows have been little studied over the years, said moose authority Victor Van Ballenberghe, because there are so few of them.

''I've never seen one,'' said the elderly biologist who has spent much of his life studying moose in Denali National Park and Preserve. ''I think it's more common in whitetail (deer). It's got to be extraordinarily rare in moose.''

Tom Lohuis, director of Fish and Game's Kenai Moose Research Center, said he's heard reports of a couple other antlered moose being seen in North America, but agreed the phenomenon is rare.

''Ecology and Management of the North American Moose,'' the definitive publication on moose biology, says ''Velericorn, or Antlered Cow Moose,'' arise when females produce testosterone after hormone production is altered by tumors or failing ovaries.

''Some antlered cows with external female characteristics may be hermaphrodites as have been found in red deer,'' the book adds.

Van Ballenberghe said he doubts the Nome moose is ''a hermaphrodite if it has a calf.'' Mammalian hermaphrodites animals with the organs of both sexes usually can't reproduce.

If it's an antlered cow with a calf, the biologists generally agreed, the moose is most likely a normal female with hormonal issues.

Moose like this have been noted before.

''Fertile, lactating, velericorn cows have been reported,'' says ''Ecology and Management of the North American Moose.''

Bente said last week that no one has reported seeing the antlered cow in the Nome area recently. He had no idea whether that means she'd wandered farther away from the city or simply shed her 2-foot-wide antlers, making her appear as just another cow.

If she sheds her antlers.

Bulls normally began dropping their antlers after the October rut. They go antlerless through the winter and begin growing new headgear in the spring.

Nothing is known of the cycles of antlered moose cows.

Female caribou the only members of the deer family that regularly grow antlers don't shed theirs until after calving in late May or early June.

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