The changing climate felt in recent years has proven deadly for moose populations in the northeastern United States. Longer fall seasons and warmer winters have caused winter tick populations to thrive at the expense of their majestic hosts. Experts, who have been alarmed by the unfolding ravaging on New England moose, warn “we’re sitting on a powder keg” as calf survival has fallen to an all-time low of 30 percent while blighted adults — barely recognizable from the onslaught — are now referred to as “ghost moose.”
The recent pestilence and its chilling physical effects have been studied by scientists at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) who published a report on the findings in the Canadian Journal of Zoology. Professor Pete Pekins, wildlife ecology specialist at UNH and study co-author, explained the importance of this “powder keg” by saying, “The iconic moose is rapidly becoming the new poster child for climate change in parts of the Northeast.”
The researchers monitored tick infestations, which have been prominent in areas of northern New Hampshire and western Maine, over the course of three winters. Between 2014 and 2016, 179 radio-marked moose calves were screened for parasites and monitored for changing physical conditions. Among these, a total of 125 had died by the end of the third winter.
“Normally anything over a 50 percent death rate would concern us, but at 70 percent, we are looking at a real problem in the moose population,” Pekins said.
While adult populations did not face a similar wreckage in numbers, those who survived the winters were severely mangled, coat-less and devitalized. “Most adult moose survived but were still severely compromised. They were thin and anemic from losing so much blood,” the university reported. “The ticks appear to be harming reproductive health, so there is also less breeding.”
Since winter tick epidemics commonly last only one to two years, researchers are blaming climate change for the pest spikes, which have subsisted throughout five of the last 10 years. “The changing environmental conditions associated with climate change are increasing and are favorable for winter ticks, specifically later-starting winters that lengthen the autumnal questing period for ticks,” Pekins explained.
But just how favorable are these warmer periods for questing? An average of 47,371 ticks were found on each of the exterminated calves. The calves perished from extreme metabolic imbalances and emaciation caused by blood loss.
This razing is more fitted to a vampire novel than a natural symbiosis; the images better attributed to a trip into Chernobyl than the New England-Acadian forests. While many might be inclined to call the “ghost moose” a haunting reminder of climate change disasters, they still live. Not fully a casualty, they are the disfigured innocents on the sidelines of an ongoing environmental war.
Image via Dan Bergeron, N.H. Fish and Game Dept.