Moose have been the subject of intensive study in recent years in the Northeastern U.S., largely due the growing problem of winter ticks that have had a negative impact on the region’s moose population. Most research has focused on the links between landscape conditions and the survival and reproduction of moose. Now, for the first time, researchers at the University of Vermont are using genetics to reveal new information about the health of moose and the state of moose populations.
Stephanie McKay, who studies animal genetics in UVM’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, has been studying genetic characteristics of moose in Vermont to better understand genetic diversity and how genes flow across the Northeastern landscape. Working in collaboration with wildlife biologist Jed Murdoch in UVM’s Rubenstein School for the Environment and Natural Resources, she has found the region’s moose population has very low genetic diversity, which may impact their ability to fight off winter ticks and reproduce.
Moose are believed to have crossed the Bering Land Bridge from Asia to North America some 15,000 years ago. As small groups of moose migrated east, they carried a limited amount of genetic information with them and did not reflect the diversity of the entire moose population, explained McKay. By the time moose arrived in Vermont, they may only have had other relatives to mate with.
Tune in to an interview with McKay and Murdoch on WDEV Radio
“It’s compounded inbreeding,” said McKay. “The moose in Idaho are going to be a bit more inbred than the ones in Alaska. A couple of the moose in Idaho may have then moved up to Vermont.”
Still in the early stages of this research, McKay and Murdoch can’t say for sure whether the genetic diversity of the moose population makes them more or less susceptible to winter ticks, but their genetic homogeneity can impact their immune system and may reduce their ability to cope with high tick loads.
“We know that if you continue to have low diversity, that sometimes reduces your ability to adapt to future change. So there’s a bit of concern, and we’re trying to figure out how much of a concern that is,” said Murdoch. “What we’ve seen in recent years is that moose have continued to decline and much of that decline is due to the influence of winter tick which can accumulate on individual moose in really high numbers. There have been records in New Hampshire for example, of upwards of 90,000 ticks on an individual.”
Having confirmed their suspicions of low diversity in the genome of Vermont moose, McKay and Murdoch are utilizing moose genetics to inform moose population management. “Vermont is the first state to be able to do that,” said McKay. “Where to from here is we’re going to have to see. We’re going to have to forge a path and see what happens.”
Emily Hellman is a senior public communication major with a minor in coaching. She is currently an intern with UVM's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Dean's Office.