photos by Robin Song
Host and producer Robin Song tells what the melting snow revealed about a drama which took place last fall. Audio is about 7 minutes. Text follows.[audio:http://ktna.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/NatObs20120506FindingAntlers.mp3|titles=NatObs20120506FindingAntlers]
On March 25th I decided to snowshoe to a pond to see what it looked like in wintertime. Previously, I had only been there in summer, when I had taken Lyra- and any dogs I was care taking- swimming on hot days. I was curious to see the area under a blanket of snow. With Lyra trotting ahead on the firm snow, I headed into the forest and began the long ascent up to the ridge. We came out on the northwest side of the pond and headed for the south shoreline so I could get a photo of the area with the sun behind me.
I noticed that Lyra was investigating something poking out of the snow near the edge of the forest. I saw antler tines and thought she had discovered a shed moose antler. As I walked on over, I saw that there were two antlers. Studying the pair, I noticed that one tine was entwined between two tines of the antler next to it. I thought maybe as the snow built up around them during the winter, the pressure had turned the antler into its mate. I could see that the smaller tines had been gnawed off by critters, and I wanted to salvage what was left. Upon further examination, I found that the antlers were still attached to the moose, buried under the snow. I thought that maybe this bull had died of injuries sustained during last fall’s rut.
As the snow deepened, animals visiting the remains had dug tunnels under the snow. A path used by animals coming and going had been blazed through the forest. I headed back to the cabin and called a friend. He agreed to come out and help me retrieve the antlers.
The next day we took turns pulling a sled containing rope, shovels, and a chain saw. Arriving at the remains, we removed our snowshoes and got down into the pit to shovel the snow away from the base of the antlers. I dug down and hit something hard under the snow. Clearing it, I discovered another tine, but it was in an odd location. Shoveling away more snow, the realization of what I had discovered hit me: this was the remains of two bull moose, whose antlers had become locked together. I was stunned. I had seen photos of, and had read about such an account, but never expected to find one myself. Clearing more snow away, we discovered that the bulls had been facing each other when they died. Their antlers were matched in size, which is why I had originally thought it was one moose.
Antlers cut from the skulls, we loaded them on the sled, lashed them down, and began the return trek. It was sobering, thinking about how these two animals had died. I couldn’t dwell on it, for I found myself getting depressed. It seemed an unnecessarily cruel way to die.
Hormones had brought these two males into battle, then the unexpected happened when their antlers entangled. They had gone from fighting to struggling for their very lives, then finally stress and starvation had ended their long ordeal.
The snow was too deep to retrieve the pair of antlers still buried. We had only brought small shovels, not expecting a major excavation. I planned to return when the snow melted enough to free the other antlers.
Back at the cabin, I called a few friends to share my unusual find. I was saddened by my discovery, and commented to one friend that Nature sure seemed cruel, sometimes. She said to remember that this was not a planned event- it was an accident. And to also think about all the critters those moose had fed over the long, deep-snow winter. Indeed, I had occasionally seen an adult bald eagle sitting atop a tall spruce in the vicinity of the pond, and had wondered why an eagle would be there in winter. Now I knew that the eagle had been coming to the remains. I also saw tracks and scat from coyotes and foxes, marten, ermine, and ravens.
On April 22nd another friend and I returned to the moose to retrieve the remaining antlers. The snow was slushy, and the going was tough. I broke trail, my snowshoes plunging into the snow with almost every step. The moose had died in a clearing between the edge of the forest and the shore of the pond. With the sun climbing higher in the sky as spring progressed, the snow had quickly melted away from the remains. The skulls and spines, ribs and legs seemed huge, lying there in piles of moose hair. The two antlers were pristine- no animals had gnawed on them at all. From the size, we guessed that they were maybe four-year olds.
It seemed like they could have freed themselves as they swung their heads, pushing and pulling. It just didn’t seem possible that two such strong animals couldn’t have jerked their antlers lose. But there they were. They had died staring at each other, collapsing at last onto the ground, drained of their great strength. The instinct to fight had eventually given over to panic, then surrender to the inevitable. Male hormones had driven these two into the fight, and I wondered if there had been a cow moose watching from the forest. I wondered how long she would have stayed until she realized that something was very wrong. Eventually she would have left, leaving the two warriors to their fate.
A lot of moose died this winter- many of them yearlings- losing the struggle to find food as the snow depleted their energy. I personally know of nine moose remains, and have heard of many more. The bears will have a lot of food waiting for them as they come out of their dens this spring. I wonder if a bear will find the remains of the pair of bulls, replenishing its body with the feast.
Who knows why such things happen? Thankfully, it’s a rare event. Though these two bulls had struggled and died, their gift was to help keep many different animals alive over the winter. Their goal was to pass along their genes. Maybe this was accomplished before the great battle ensued. I hope so. I like to think there may be a little moose calf – or two – born into the world in a few more weeks, struggling to its feet and feeling the soft tongue of its mama licking it dry as the sun warms its velvety hide.
It’s the age-old dance of life and death, death and life, the ending and the continuing. I am honored- and humbled- to have come upon evidence of the ending of the lives of these two bulls. Perhaps I will encounter a little moose calf in this area this summer, and wonder if its genetics trace back to either of the bulls, whose lives ended so spectacularly, near the secluded pond surrounded by the silent forest.
Written: May 2, 2012 by Robin Song
Finding Moose Antlers