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10 Gigantic Facts About Moose

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For most people, moose are a pretty foreign concept, but for some, they're part of everyday life. Michelle Carstensen, Wildlife Health Program Supervisor at Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, gave mental_floss the scoop on these furry giants.

1. Moose are huge.

Moose are the largest members of the deer family, weighing as much as 1200 pounds; they can grow to be 5 to 6.5 feet from hooves to shoulders. This does not include a raised head or antlers, so it's safe to say that the majority of moose tower over all non-basketball players. 

2. They eat a lot.

With huge size comes a huge appetite. Moose are browsers and will casually devour 73 pounds a day in the summer and 34 pounds in the winter. They eat an assortment of shrubs, woody plants, and aquatic vegetation; in the winter, their diet is more restricted, so they eat the buds of plants.

3. Organisms of all sizes pose a threat to moose.

Moose are formidable opponents with sharp hooves that can kick with tremendous force, but even they have predators. A pack of wolves or a black bear is no match for a healthy adult moose, so bears and wolves typically pick off the young, sick, and old. And even though moose are powerful and quite large, a single bite can do one in: There's a good chance the bite will cause an infection that eventually kills the animal up to two weeks later. 

Moose also have a much smaller menace to worry about: parasites. Brain worm (Parelaphostrongylus tenuis) is a parasite contracted from eating snails. The infectious larvae migrate to the moose's brain and cause neurological damage. "It’s interesting thinking of something as big as a human hair killing a 1200 pound moose, but they do," Carstensen says. 

Another tiny nuisance is the winter tick. Tick infestations depend on the weather and habitat: Harsh winters mean less ticks the following year; when ticks fall off animals to complete their cycle and there's still snow on the ground, they die. So hard, long winters are great news for moose. 

4. Their antlers are used for fighting...

When fighting off predators, the antlers, or paddles, don't come into play as much as you would think; a moose's first line of defense is its sharp hooves, which are capable of mortally wounding a wolf or bear.

Paddles are only found on males, and used mainly for fighting and displaying. During mating season in autumn, bulls will cover a lot of ground looking for females to mate with. They establish breeding territory by fighting off other males in the area. The fights are not always fight-to-the-death scenarios, and often a competing moose will back away from a fight if the challenger has a more impressive rack of antlers. Great paddles are not the only way to find mates; some males with better navigational skills—or just sheer luck—may come across a female by chance and completely skip antler combat. 

5. ...and they shed every year.

Moose lose their paddles every winter and grow new ones the following spring. "Antler growth is based on testosterone levels and day length," Carstensen says. "So they start to grow those antlers in the late spring and summer, and they’re covered in velvet. The velvet is vascularized so there is a blood-flow supplying these antlers as they’re growing." By early fall—a.k.a. mating season—bulls start to shed and shine their paddles by rubbing them against trees. Their fuzzy velvet-covered antlers go through a gory transformation, and by October they will have shiny new paddles for competition and display. 

Antlers are also a great indicator of age. With each winter, young moose paddles grow in size: nubs become spikes and spikes become full racks. Bulls in their prime, between ages 5 and 8, have the largest racks. With old age, the antlers become more deformed and less impressive. 

6. Antlers are heavy. 

Just like the moose themselves, antlers can come in different sizes. The paddles are essentially a big bone, so they generally weigh quite a bit; bulls develop muscular necks to help hold up the enormous paddles. A full grown moose's antlers can weigh about 40 pounds. 

7. The babies need help from their mom.

Female moose, or cows, generally have 1 to 2 calves in May. On average, the calves weigh about 30 pounds at birth and grow very quickly. Still, baby moose don't have the ability to run or protect themselves very well, so the mother stays with her offspring for a year and a half, fighting off wolves and bears that try to pick off the young calves.

8. They're great swimmers.

Moose are naturally gifted swimmers. It's common to see one hop right into a lake and swim across at up to 6 mph. The animals have an innate ability to know how to swim, so even calves can swim. 

9. There are four subspecies in North America.

Moose can be categorized into four different species in North America: the eastern moose (A. alces americana), the Shiras moose (A. alces shirasi), the Alaskan moose (A. alces gigas), and the northwestern moose (A. alces andersoni), which Carstensen works with in Minnesota. Moose can be distinguished by different sizes and antler shapes. The largest moose is the Alaskan moose (pictured above) that can stand at 7 feet tall with an antler span of 6 feet. 

10. They're dying at an alarming pace.

Something is happening to all the moose in Minnesota. The state once had a flourishing moose population in the north that was hunted and doing quite well: In the mid-1980s, there were 2000 of the animals in the northwest, but that number dropped to less than 200 in just two decades. This prompted the state to do some research to prevent further drops in population. Unfortunately, the northeast is now facing similiar a problem; the moose population has dropped 50 percent since the mid-2000s. 

Carstensen is leading a $1.2 million moose mortality study to figure out what's killing Minnesota's moose. Her team has collared 150 animals with GPS trackers to keep tabs on them; when a moose dies, an e-mail and text are sent out so the team knows when and where. "The goal is to get there within 24 hours to determine the cause of death," Carstensen says. "[That's important] because moose are a very large animal and they have very thick skin, a very insulating coat, and when they do die, they decompose very rapidly. Being able to get to an animal in 24 hours gives us the best diagnostic level samples that we can collect and help us determine cause of death."

In order to collect that data, they need to bring the moose to their diagnostic lab. Transporting a thousand-pound moose out of the woods is no easy task, so Carstensen's team has modified trucks, ATVs, and snowmobiles to help move these gigantic animals. One moose was even pulled out with a helicopter. 

The study is now two years old, but unfortunately, there are no clear answers yet. "In the health category, we’ve confirmed causes such as brainworm, severe winter tick infestations, bacterial infections from injuries and liver flukes, as well as undetermined health issues," Carstensen says. "What we might end up determining overall is that there is no smoking gun that points to just one factor that’s driving this system; it may very well end up as a mix of causes related to health, predation, habitat, weather, and even climate change."

All images courtesy of iStock. 

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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Animals
15 Confusing Plant and Animal Misnomers
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People have always given names to the plants and animals around us. But as our study of the natural world has developed, we've realized that many of these names are wildly inaccurate. In fact, they often have less to say about nature than about the people who did the naming. Here’s a batch of these befuddling names.

1. COMMON NIGHTHAWK

There are two problems with this bird’s name. First, the common nighthawk doesn’t fly at night—it’s active at dawn and dusk. Second, it’s not a hawk. Native to North and South America, it belongs to a group of birds with an even stranger name: Goatsuckers. People used to think that these birds flew into barns at night and drank from the teats of goats. (In fact, they eat insects.)

2. IRISH MOSS

It’s not a moss—it’s a red alga that lives along the rocky shores of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Irish moss and other red algae give us carrageenan, a cheap food thickener that you may have eaten in gummy candies, soy milk, ice cream, veggie hot dogs, and more.

3. FISHER-CAT

Native to North America, the fisher-cat isn’t a cat at all: It’s a cousin of the weasel. It also doesn’t fish. Nobody’s sure where the fisher cat’s name came from. One possibility is that early naturalists confused it with the sea mink, a similar-looking creature that was an expert fisher. But the fisher-cat prefers to eat land animals. In fact, it’s one of the few creatures that can tackle a porcupine.

4. AMERICAN BLUE-EYED GRASS

American blue-eyed grass doesn’t have eyes (which is good, because that would be super creepy). Its blue “eyes” are flowers that peek up at you from a meadow. It’s also not a grass—it’s a member of the iris family.

5. MUDPUPPY

The mudpuppy isn’t a cute, fluffy puppy that scampered into some mud. It’s a big, mucus-covered salamander that spends all of its life underwater. (It’s still adorable, though.) The mudpuppy isn’t the only aquatic salamander with a weird name—there are many more, including the greater siren, the Alabama waterdog, and the world’s most metal amphibian, the hellbender.

6. WINGED DRAGONFISH

This weird creature has other fantastic and inaccurate names: brick seamoth, long-tailed dragonfish, and more. It’s really just a cool-looking fish. Found in the waters off of Asia, it has wing-like fins, and spends its time on the muddy seafloor.

7. NAVAL SHIPWORM

The naval shipworm is not a worm. It’s something much, much weirder: a kind of clam with a long, wormlike body that doesn’t fit in its tiny shell. It uses this modified shell to dig into wood, which it eats. The naval shipworm, and other shipworms, burrow through all sorts of submerged wood—including wooden ships.

8. WHIP SPIDERS

These leggy creatures are not spiders; they’re in a separate scientific family. They also don’t whip anything. Whip spiders have two long legs that look whip-like, but that are used as sense organs—sort of like an insect’s antennae. Despite their intimidating appearance, whip spiders are harmless to humans.

9. VELVET ANTS

A photograph of a velvet ant
Craig Pemberton, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

There are thousands of species of velvet ants … and all are wasps, not ants. These insects have a fuzzy, velvety look. Don’t pat them, though—velvet ants aren’t aggressive, but the females pack a powerful sting.

10. SLOW WORM

The slow worm is not a worm. It’s a legless reptile that lives in parts of Europe and Asia. Though it looks like a snake, it became legless through a totally separate evolutionary path from the one snakes took. It has many traits in common with lizards, such as eyelids and external ear holes.

11. TRAVELER'S PALM

This beautiful tree from Madagascar has been planted in tropical gardens all around the world. It’s not actually a palm, but belongs to a family that includes the bird of paradise flower. In its native home, the traveler’s palm reproduces with the help of lemurs that guzzle its nectar and spread pollen from tree to tree.

12. VAMPIRE SQUID

Drawing of a vampire squid
Carl Chun, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This deep-sea critter isn’t a squid. It’s the only surviving member of a scientific order that has characteristics of both octopuses and squids. And don’t let the word “vampire” scare you; it only eats bits of falling marine debris (dead stuff, poop, and so on), and it’s only about 11 inches long.

13. MALE FERN & LADY FERN

Early botanists thought that these two ferns belonged to the same species. They figured that the male fern was the male of the species because of its coarse appearance. The lady fern, on the other hand, has lacy fronds and seemed more ladylike. Gender stereotypes aside, male and lady Ferns belong to entirely separate species, and almost all ferns can make both male and female reproductive cells. If ferns start looking manly or womanly to you, maybe you should take a break from botany.

14. TENNESSEE WARBLER

You will never find a single Tennessee warbler nest in Tennessee. This bird breeds mostly in Canada, and spends the winter in Mexico and more southern places. But early ornithologist Alexander Wilson shot one in 1811 in Tennessee during its migration, and the name stuck.

15. CANADA THISTLE

Though it’s found across much of Canada, this spiky plant comes from Europe and Asia. Early European settlers brought Canada thistle seeds to the New World, possibly as accidental hitchhikers in grain shipments. A tough weed, the plant soon spread across the continent, taking root in fields and pushing aside crops. So why does it have this inaccurate name? Americans may have been looking for someone to blame for this plant—so they blamed Canada.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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