Courtesy Image / Liza McElroy
Artist Liza McElroy of Seward, Alaska, recently sketched two moose in their summertime aquatic environment to illustrate this story.

Courtesy Image / Liza McElroy Artist Liza McElroy of Seward, Alaska, recently sketched two moose in their summertime aquatic environment to illustrate this story.

Alaska Science Forum: Why is a moose’s nose so big?

The more you nose.

A scientist from Ohio once pondered why moose have such big noses.

Why might a scientist from Ohio care? It can tell a person about evolution, says Lawrence Witmer. Witmer is a biologist and professor of anatomy at Ohio University. As part of a study of unusual noses on dinosaurs and modern animals, Witmer and his colleagues examined the enigmatic nose of the moose.

Because moose disappeared from Ohio long ago, Witmer looked farther north for help. He found it in Newfoundland, Canada’s easternmost province. There, workers for the Department of Natural Resources shipped him four frozen heads of road-killed moose.

With mooseheads intact in his Athens, Ohio, lab, Witmer dissected the noses for a closer look, finding enough compelling information to write a paper that was published in the Journal of Zoology.

Before Witmer’s study, scientists had speculated on why the moose might have evolved such a long nose while other members of the deer family had relatively short noses.

One argument was that a long nose could help a moose shed heat from its huge body after running long distances to avoid predators. Witmer and his coworkers found this adaptation unlikely because few blood vessels exist near the outside surface of a moose’s nose, and moose are more apt to stand and fight predators than to try and outrun them.

Another reason a moose might have a big nose is to better sniff out predators or potential mates. Witmer found that idea had merit, and his attention soon turned to a moose’s nostrils.

Just like a person’s ears, a moose’s large nostrils point opposite directions. The wide spacing of moose nostrils might permit a moose to better locate smells, as our ears help us locate the direction of a sound and its distance. Witmer couldn’t rule out that moose use their unique nostrils for directional smelling, but all the complicated tissues that make up a moose’s nostrils suggested moose used them for something more — a set of valves that close automatically underwater.

“Animals like horses, dogs, and cats can’t close their nostrils,” Witmer said. “Closing your nostrils is a common aquatic adaptation, but you don’t see it in other members of the deer family.”

When a moose dips its head under water, the difference between the water pressure and the air pressure causes the nostrils to close, Witmer said. This adaptation, perhaps the main reason a moose’s nose is so long, allows a moose to feed underwater without water flooding into its nose, an unpleasant sensation even for two-legged, short-nosed mammals like us.

• Since the late 1970s, the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute has provided this column free in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell is a science writer for the Geophysical Institute. A version of this story ran in 2004.

More in News

(Juneau Empire file photo)
Aurora forecast for the week of Feb. 26

These forecasts are courtesy of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute… Continue reading

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Monday, Feb. 26, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Former state labor commissioner Ed Flanagan, State Rep. Genevieve Mina, D-Anchorage, and the Rev. Michael Burke of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Anchorage wheel boxes of signed petitions into a state Division of Elections office on Jan. 9. The petitions were for a ballot initiative to increase the state’s minimum wage, mandate paid sick leave and ensure that workers are not required to hear employers’ political or religious messages. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Minimum wage increase, ranked choice repeal have enough signatures to be on ballot

A pair of ballot measures have enough public support to appear on… Continue reading

State senators meet with members of the media at the Alaska State Capitol to discuss education legislation after a press conference by Gov. Mike Dunleavy on the topic on Tuesday. (Mark Sabbatini/Juneau Empire)
Dunleavy threatens veto of education bill if more of his priorities aren’t added

It is not certain there would be the 40 votes necessary to override a veto by the governor

Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire
Nanibaa’ Frommherz, a student at Thunder Mountain High School, testifies about a proposal to help the Juneau School District with its financial crisis during a Juneau Assembly Committee of the Whole meeting Monday night at City Hall. The meeting was moved from the Assembly Chambers to a conference room toward the end due to technical errors that disrupted the live online feed.
Little public reaction to city’s bailout of school district this year, but big questions beyond loom

Only two people testify Monday about proposed $4.1M loan and taking over $3.9 in “shared costs.”

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Mauka Grunenberg looks at live oysters for sale on Aug. 29, 2022, at Sagaya City Market in Anchorage. The oysters came from a farm in Juneau. Oysters, blue mussels and sugar, bull and ribbon kelp are the main products of an Alaska mariculture industry that has expanded greatly in recent years. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Alaska’s mariculture industry expands, with big production increases in recent years, report says

While Alaska’s mariculture industry is small by global standards, production of farmed… Continue reading

U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola (center) walks with Alaska Rep. Will Stapp, R-Fairbanks, and Alaska Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, into the Alaska House of Representatives chambers ahead of her annual address to the Alaska Legislature on Monday. (Mark Sabbatini/Juneau Empire)
Peltola celebrates federal intervention in Albertsons, Kroger merger in legislative address

Congresswoman says wins for Alaska’s fisheries and state’s economy occurring through collaboration.

Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, speaks in support of Senate concurrence on a version of an education bill passed by the Alaska House last week during a Senate floor discussion on Monday. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Senate concurs on House education bill, Dunleavy is skeptical

Dunleavy schedules press conference Tuesday afternoon in Anchorage to discuss the legislation.

Most Read