Enter Moose, Exit Scientists

Day 12
July 22, 2017

This morning, Madelyn and I laid out a transect at Schwabacher Landing, the fifth of our series on beaver ecology. We set up the line, prepared our sample bags, and started collecting data on a variety of riparian plants and wildflowers.

Gorgeous morning at Schwabacher. Photo by Paepin Goff. July 22, 2017.

About half an hour into data collection, I heard a loud animal call beyond the forest line. We gathered our things (left the transect line in place) and prepared to head to the car – we didn’t want to be anywhere near a grizzly bear, which was in the area just a few days ago.

As we were picking up our things, a moose and her calf emerged from the trees and walked straight for us on the river bank. When they saw they had company, they shuffled up the river about 50 meters.

Moose and calf at Schwabacher Landing from Paepin Goff on Vimeo.

We hung back for a few minutes – the moose and her calf were now positioned on the trail between us and the car – and I took some pictures and video. They mostly navigated along the established park trail, rather than making their way through thick brush. On that note, it’s important to consider how our trails impact animal navigation as well. By creating a clear path, we’ve routed moose along the trail and along the river, possibly disrupting their natural movements.

Another example of this comes to mind. In Montana, a natural salt outcropping attracts mountain goats near Goat Lick Bridge. Before the bridge was installed, the goats had full range to cross at whatever points they so chose. But after the bridge was put in, the goats were funneled under the bridge (they can’t cross the road as easily), so the landscape underneath and near the bridge has accumulated the wear and tear of an entire population that would have otherwise been disbursed over a large area.

A moose and her calf making sure we’re not posing a threat to them. Photo by Paepin Goff. July 22, 2017.

The moose seemed to be attracted to a willow bush on the river bank. They stood and fed on it for about ten minutes while I took notes and photos – I mean, might as well, right? They seemed to pull leaves off of the plant in a twisting and ripping motion. I’d assumed they ate similar to cows by slowly grinding their food to a pulp, but it looks like they’re a bit more selective with the particular plant material they ingest.

Moose and calf feeing on willow at Schwabacher Landing from Paepin Goff on Vimeo.

In contrast to other moose calves we’ve seen, this one was particularly attached to the mother. It kept attempting to eat off the teat, rather than the plant, but the mother would make a gentle noise at it and encourage plant feeding instead.

Moose calf feeding on willow at Schwabacher Landing. Photo by Paepin Goff. July 22, 2017.

After she realized we didn’t have any intention of bothering her, the mother moose faced away from us and feasted while her baby stayed close behind.

Adult female moose at Schwabacher Landing. Photo by Paepin Goff. July 22, 2017.

After a quick snack, the pair cautiously crossed the Snake River and headed for the trees.


Moose and calf feeding at Schwabacher Landing from Paepin Goff on Vimeo.

After I was relatively certain they’d moved along, I walked over to the plant they were feeding on and noticed that the stems were covered in sap-feeding ants.

Sap-feeding ants on a willow plant, Schwabacher Landing, Grand Teton National Park, WY. from Paepin Goff on Vimeo.


The ants seemed to bunch up near leaf nodes as in the photo below.

Sap-feeding ants on a willow plant. Photo by Paepin Goff. July 22, 2017.

The after effect of the moose feeding was a plant that was completely cleared of its highest reaching leaves. In this way, feeding moose “trim” the plants down to size, preventing them from outcompeting with their peers and maintaining a full-bodied plant, rather than a tall and scraggly one.

Evidence of moose feeding on a willow plant at Schwabacher Landing. Photo by Paepin Goff. July 22, 2017.

A closer look shows how the sap-feeding ants gravitated to the damaged area, probably to take advantage of the plant’s leakage.

Willow leaflet after moose feeding. A sap-feeding ant identifies the damaged area within two minutes. Photo by Paepin Goff. July 22, 2017.

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