June 2, 2023

Moose Ticks

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*Editor’s Note* – This article first appeared in the Bethel Citizen.

Open Air with Tom Remington

Moose Ticks

I think most people enjoy seeing a moose in the wild. What most aren’t aware of is that any moose, during the winter months, can be transporting anywhere from a handful to several thousand blood sucking ticks. There are many myths about these ticks that I would like to straighten out.

Maine has an official estimated moose population of about 76,000, according to Lee Kantar, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s (MDIFW) head moose biologist. Mr. Kantar also says that ticks can be a contributing factor in the winter death of moose but not a sole factor. The MDIFW website contains more information on moose ticks but not enough, in my opinion, to help those interested to fully understand how moose get these ticks on them, why, and what happens to both the tick and the moose.

Some time ago I spent many hours doing research on moose ticks and the information I found from a study called, “Winter Ticks on Moose and Other Ungulates: Factors Influencing Their Population Size”, – William M. Samuel and Dwight A. Welch, seemed to substantiate MDIFW’s information about ticks but also includes information to better understand what makes for a bountiful harvest of ticks, what kills the ticks and how badly moose may suffer.

The most common myth about moose ticks that I hear goes something like this: We need a lot of snow (or a little snow) and a lot of cold to kill off the ticks. According to the study in reference, that’s not necessarily an easy task to achieve. Samuel and Welch state that we would need 6 consecutive days where air temperatures do not rise above 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s pretty cold and hoping it will last at least 6 days isn’t a normal event, or desired either from perspective.

There may be, however, another weather/climate phenomenon that might be more affective in keeping ticks off moose as well as creating a situation where ticks can’t survive the winter. It’s the wind.

In Maine it is mostly during the months of September and October, perhaps into November, where moose pick up the ticks. Naturally, any unusually cold periods during this time is known to slow down the activity of the ticks. During this time the larvae of the tick begins its slow ascent up plants and shrubs. They wait there, almost in ambush, for a passing moose. As the moose passes by the plants, the larvae attaches itself to the moose, the long winter ride begins and the ticks begin sustaining their own lives by sucking the blood from the moose.

Moose are most active around this same time as well and that only tends to exacerbate the problem.

When the ticks/larvae are waiting on the vegetation looking for a ride, early and deep snow could bury the ticks preventing them from easily getting on the moose. We know cold, to very cold, temperatures at least might slow down the event, but gusty winds will blow the ticks off the plants causing them to begin another long and arduous climb up another plant. Frequent winds can be the most effective in keeping ticks from getting on moose, according to the study. Ticks that don’t find a host to feed on for the winter, struggle to survive.

Once the ticks attach themselves to the moose, they “dig in”, enjoy the warmth given off by the moose and nourish on the blood.

Ticks alone on a moose, as a rule, do not kill the moose, but it can seriously contribute to the death. Infected moose itch from the sucking insects. This perpetual itching causes the moose to get up and move around, stopping to rub, sometimes rubbing protective fur right off to the bare skin creating exposure and loss of valuable heat. The increased activity uses up stored fat and energy supplies which can greatly diminish a moose’s natural ability to deal with prolonged winter cold and snow. Sucking lots of blood weakens the animal and they also spend far too much time dealing with the torment of the ticks than taking care of themselves.

Once Spring arrives, the engorged ticks willingly drop off the moose and the process starts in all over again.

During the winter months, should you venture into the woods and come across where a tick-infested moose has been, the chances are you will also see blood in the snow and ticks that have been rubbed off.

The next time you spot a moose, you can now think about how difficult, at times, its life can be.