Moose on the Mediterranean? Research sheds new light on where moose once roamed

If you’re trying to survive an ice age — why not decamp to Italy?

That’s what moose seem to have done thousands of years ago, according to newly-published research. The findings are based on ancient fossil samples collected across Europe, Asia and North America.

“When it got really cold during the ice age of Europe, around 25,000 years ago, they went south like a lot of people do. They went south to southern Italy,” said Yukon government paleontologist Grant Zazula, a co-author of the research paper.

“I thought that was really cool.”

That’s just one of several insights in the research paper, which surveys the fossil record to paint a more detailed picture of how ancient moose survived and ultimately thrived across the northern hemisphere.

The paper, published this month in the Journal of Biogeography, was based on 10 years of work by an international team of researchers.

Besides Italy, moose once roamed through central Japan, the Balkans, and Britain.

Zazula says the fossil record shows that the first moose in North America made their way across the Beringia land bridge from Asia about 15,000 years ago. It was the tail-end of the last ice age, and the environment was changing.

‘One of the neat things about moose that we’ve learned is that they’re one of the last invasive species into North America,’ said Yukon paleontologist Grant Zazula. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

“So as the climates are warming in Europe and in Asia and the forests are coming back at the end of the ice age, populations of moose really explode,” Zazula said.

“One of the neat things about moose that we’ve learned is that they’re one of the last invasive species into North America.”

As forests replaced grasslands, wooly mammoths and other large grazing animals struggled to survive before eventually going extinct. Moose, meanwhile, took to the newly-forested landscapes — and would eventually become an emblematic species of the northern boreal landscape.

Zazula also says the research suggests that moose arrived in North America right around the same time as the first people did.

“I think that’s a really cool relationship. It shows that there’s been this longstanding historical relationship between Indigenous people in North America and moose,” he said.

“I like trying to look at that relationship between people and animals, and I think moose is an ideal species to study in that regard.”

A detailed map of Beringia, which once connected Asia with North America. The first North Americans made their way across the land bridge about 15,000 years ago — roughly the same time that moose did. (Yukon Geological Survey)

Zazula is used to studying animals that are long-extinct: mammoths, giant beavers, and scimitar cats. Digging into the fossil record of moose has been a nice change, he says.

He also hopes the research proves valuable to biologists and others who manage moose populations. 

“We were interested to study moose because we wanted to look at how their populations responded to past climate change,” Zazula said.

“I think it provides some really important information that wildlife managers can use to understand how their populations may respond to future climate change.”

And if you’re wondering what those ancient moose might have looked like, Zazula says you don’t have to use your imagination. 

“The moose that arrived in North America for the first time … looked exactly like a moose [does] today. So nothing kind of special about their appearance,” he said.

“They’re not giant woolly moose or anything like that.”