UAA field laboratory class on moose nutrition attracts biology undergrads, Russian ecology professors

PALMER -- Monty was the center of attention. A clutch of humans watched his every move: college students with pens and notebooks, a state wildlife biologist, and three professors – two of them Russian.

Monty samples the buds on cottonwood and aspen branches; students record his choices in a UAA field research ecology lab.Monty is tall, dark and – sort of handsome. He’s also a great dinner date, which is how he got this special culinary assignment.

So there he stood – inside a fence stocked with some of his favorite hors d’oeuvres –10 branches of cottonwood and 10 branches of aspen, anchored at precise distances along the wire enclosure.

He stepped up to one branch; fleshy brown lips parted; big square teeth took a bite. A low murmur hummed from the college students as they recited and recorded precisely the moment he took a bite, how many bites he took, whether he looked anxious, when he moved on to the next branch. He had 20 minutes to work the appetizer line-up and reveal whether the cottonwood or the aspen most tickled his fancy.

Now, Monty’s known for keeping his focus around food. Except, today. The visiting Russians, having snapped the photos they needed, retreated. And Monty watched, with great interest, as they tromped awkwardly through deep snow all the way back to their distant car. Tick tock, tick tock, and the clock ran out on this timed trial that was an ecology lab for grad student Lauren Caruso’s Biology 271 field laboratory class.

No matter, said the optimistic Caruso. Her students still got good data, and also got a feel for the precision of research and what it’s like to work with captive moose. All of this took place at the Alaska Department of Fish & Game’s moose pens facility located in Palmer adjacent to the Matanuska Experiment Farm.

When the students first arrived, the state’s chief moose nutrition biologist, William Captive moose nose into the bin for cabbage treats.Collins, was explaining his own studies on moose forage and its varying nutritional quality. Behind him in the pen, six big brown moose nosed around a large covered box where something delicious was stored: gnarly cabbage heads, so scrumptious to moose (as many Alaska gardeners regrettably know).

For the most part, the moose behind him behaved well as Collins explained a nutrition finding that surprised him. He’d been studying the forage utilized by the Nelchina herd because its birthrate had slowed and fewer twins were being born, a situation common among some other herds in Alaska.

He looked at their forage. There was plenty of it and the moose were eating a lot of it. Still, it was providing relatively poor nutrition for the animals. Why?

As it turned out, the plants were rich in all-important nitrogen, the basic building block for protein, but they were also loaded with tannins, a self-defense mechanism used by plants that are over-grazed, undernourished, lacking water or experiencing lots of direct sunlight. The bad news for moose is – the tannins make protein less digestible for them. They may be eating, but they aren’t getting good protein nutrition. Fewer babies and fewer twins mean a lower herd productivity and greater vulnerability to severe winters and predatory bears or wolves.

Behind Collins in the pen, the moose were getting restless, starting to knock heads and bump into each other. Quickly he slipped inside, opened the big crate loaded with cabbage and threw a few heads out. Appeased, the moose munched happily and Collins returned to the visiting ecology students.

Alaska wildlife biologist Bill Collins explains one tool he uses in nutritional research with moose, nylon bags that let him control exactly what goes into the moose's stomach.What came next was intriguing. He held up what looked like a long string with tea bags attached at intervals, a device he uses in nutritional studies. He fills the nylon bags with precise amounts and types of forages, then inserts them into the moose’s stomach through a hole in its side, called a fistula. Then, at various time intervals, he removes the bags and determines how much forage remains in the bags. The difference between what was originally placed into the bags and what remains is what was digested. The digested portion leaches out of the nylon bag by passing through the weave of the cloth. (A rubber plug is used to keep the opening closed while the bags are in the stomach, as well as during all other times, so that any other food the animal eats will not fall out.)

In separate nutritional studies, Collins keeps the moose in stalls having grated floors where he can precisely monitor what goes into the moose (what it eats) and what comes out in the form of feces and urine. By analyzing what the animal eats versus what comes out in the form of waste, Collins can know exactly what nutritional value the moose have consumed. 

Caruso and her students can use the values that Collins arrives at in their calculations, but the basis of their work is moose behavior, as in how moose decide what to eat. Caruso’s goal is to understand the decisions and behaviors moose utilize to select a good diet, while minimizing the energy they must expend to get it. This type of information will help researchers evaluate different habitats and their ability to satisfy the nutritional requirements of moose.

To understand how she studies this with moose, imagine a more humanized scenario. Say you love nachos. But spinach? Not so much; you’ll eat it, but it’s not your favorite.

You are placed in a room with a long table filled with 9 samples of nachos and one of sautéed spinach. Next time, you find five samples of each. The last time, the ratio fully reverses, and you find just one sample of nachos and nine plates of spinach.

Will you eat the spinach when there aren’t any more nachos?

That’s what Caruso is “asking” her moose. They love willow, but will manage on birch, aspen and cottonwood. They’ll only eat alder if, frankly, there’s just nothing else.

This knowledge informs what habitat is really the most appropriate for moose – which matters a lot to Caruso. Once she finishes her master’s on moose food choices with graduate advisor and UAA Biological Sciences faculty Donald Spalinger, she hopes to work on a doctorate related to the wellbeing of urbanized moose.

Lauren Caruso raised four moose calves in captivity at a Kenai research facility before she decided she wanted to study moose as a graduate student. “I am very passionate about conservation and the way moose populations are impacted in urban areas,” she said. But she’s not a “moose-hugger;” she looks for balance among competing populations. As she puts it, “Helping wildlife and humans co-habit, so we get our buildings and moose get their food.”

You might wonder how a 28-year-old from Colorado develops a passion for moose? She has even earned the nickname “the moose lady.” Her journey started with an undergraduate degree in astrophysics (she wanted to be an astronaut), with a short detour into some general education biology requirements. Those stopped her in her tracks; she loved biology. She finished both degrees, but knew in her heart that biology was where she belonged.

Then, a chance opportunity to work at the Kenai Moose Research Center raising captive moose calves sealed the deal.

“I raised four in captivity, and it was life-changing. I just want to work with moose, and learn everything I can about them,” she said. “I think they are fascinating animals.”

The visiting Russians on this one-day field trip into moose forage research were ecology professors from Tyumen State University in Siberia, Dr. Andrey Tolstiko and Dr. Andrey Soromotin. The two Andreys were guests of UAA through the U.S. Fulbright program and hosted during their visit by UAA Biological Sciences professor Douglas Causey.

Left to right are: Biology 271 instructor Lauren Caruso; Biology professor Douglas Causey; and from Tyumen State University in Siberia, Drs. Andrey Tolstikov and Andrey Soromotin.Tyumen, an ancient community dating back to 1586, has an academic and geographic environment similar to UAA and Alaska, including large, oil-rich territory and the need for environmental perspectives on ecosystems and on oil development and remediation. About 10,000 students study on their campus, but many more engage in distance learning programs in the vast region east of the Ural Mountains. Tolstikov is also the Director of International Programs there and is specifically interested in organizing student exchanges with UAA.

“There are many opportunities,” he said, comfortable in English. “For one, we could have undergraduates come over in the summer and participate in field studies.” They would have a Russian-language requirement, he said.

“But,” he added, “we also have graduate students from around the world. And UAA’s could join them. Those classes are taught in English.” And there is the strong possibility of mutually beneficial joint research projects for both universities.

The Biology 271 students will follow Causey into the Chugach foothills in just a few weeks for their next session of hands-on ecology field studies, on the climate-related changes in wildlife presence and abundance.

Snowshoes, anyone?