WILDLIFE IN ALASKA.

Monday, May 11, 2015

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When Sarah Palin ran for Vice President, the whole country was abuzz with anecdotes about Alaskan moose, making it sound as if this was the only animal to symbolize United States coldest, most Arctic state. People wishing to make fun of the pretty lady from the north, as well as her supporters, sported large antlers and buck teeth, as a symbol of Alaska's contribution to the elections.

So we know all know about the Moose, but I wonder how many of us realize how enormous this animal is. The Alaskan male moose is largest in the world, weighing in between 1,200-1,600 pounds, while his female counterpart weighed a mere 800-1,200 pounds.

Historically, moose played an important role in Alaska's development, as they supplied food, shelter clothing and implements to the Athabaskan Indians. Since they range all over the state and multiply rapidly, these great big vegan animals, with their huge antlers (only the males are so lucky as to have them), have become an icon of Alaska.

They are hunted and each year more than 7000 animals are taken by big game hunters for meat and trophy, and are also the food of choice for bears and wolves.

But there is much more to Alaska than the trusty moose the country has an abundance of wildlife.  In fact 98% of the US brown bear population lives in Alaska, roughly about 30,000. They are almost all over the state, with the exception of a few islands.  Most brown bears are Grizzlies. There is a species however that can only be found in one place On the Southern coast of Alaska lie the islands of the Kodiak Archipelago. They are believed to have been isolated from the rest of the world since the last Ice Age, for 10,000 years. There lives the legendary giant, the biggest brown bear in the world, the famed Kodiak Bear. The abundance of food, and the lack of need to fight for their territory, allowed these animals to evolve into their massive dimensions.

Sadly, I was invited to the Soho loft of a nice Jewish millionaire who turned out to be  a big game hunter, and on the floor saw an enormous fur rug, with the head and glass eyes of the Kodiak Bear it all once belonged to staring at me. I ran out crying Needless to say, it ended our relationship.

There are also the smaller black bear and the Arctic Polar Bear. A great diversity of mammals like bison, mountain goats, caribou, and muskoxen and the list is long.

I'll go into detail about all the above but first just a brief mention of what's to be found in this state, which is often referred to as The Last Frontier.

Alaska has over 430 species of birds, reigning over them is the largest population of bald eagles in the USA with. The tiniest animal, the pygmy shrew, which weighs less than a penny and looks as cute as a button lives there and the largest mammal, the grey whale, weighing in at anywhere between 16-45 tons. Just to conceptualize how heavy that is, think of an 18 wheeler semi-trailer truck loaded with bricks: it will give you the equivalent of 45 tons.

There is a large assortment of amphibians and reptiles, and of course, of marine life.

Diverse and abundant wildlife are central to Alaska's economy and people. Over 1,000 vertebrate species are found in the state, sometimes in huge numbers. More than 900,000 caribou roam in 32 herds across vast tundra landscapes. On the Copper River Delta alone, five to eight million shorebirds stop to forage and rest each spring on their way to arctic breeding grounds. Alaska has 32 species of carnivores, more than any other state.

An Interesting fact to mention: while 400 plus species declared endangered or threatened in the rest of the US and the World, in Alaska they are still plentiful. Most of Alaska's wildlife is brimming with health and only 20 out of thousands are on the list.

 

The Brown Bear.

They can be found through most of Alaska, but variations in diet, behavior and size lead to distinct differences between brown bears, depending on where they live.

They are known to be the greatest predators in the state, and will attack and devour moose and caribou calves, even adults, with their powerful claws and teeth.

The bear living in the central parts of the state, the Grizzlies are smaller, since they don't have access to the spawning salmon which is plentiful in the streams, those bears that live on the coastal areas, have access to vast amounts of salmon and thus grow much larger than the central grizzlies. All bears supplement their diet with berries, grasses and roots. The Kodiak bear, like  other brown bear, are omnivorous, but because of their size, and because they live on an island surrounded by water carrying salmon, they eat fish, meat and berries and no animal is likely to escape their claws, should they crave some meat.

Male Bear in the coastal region weigh in at about 1,500 pounds are 8 feet standing on their hind legs have a round face and a hump on their back. the hump is really a cluster of muscle which helps them to dig.

 

The Black Bear

Much smaller than the brown bear, and reach only 5 feet in height. They are the most common bear in North America, and though called black bear, they vary in color, ranging in the grey and cinnamon. They look different from the Brown bear, with their straight profile and sharp claws. They have excellent sense of smell and feed on berries, fish or on leftovers from a picnic.

 

The Polar Bear

USFWS

The Polar Bear are closely related to the Brown Bear, but they are white, very large, and extremely carnivorous.  They stand about 10 feet tall, living and ruling the Northern Hemisphere, North of the Arctic Circle, surrounded by sea ice. Alaskans have great pride in these intimidating hunters, with their thick, white fur and well-padded bodies which protect them from the Arctic cold, and allow them to be comfortable as they're swimming after prey. They may look like huge teddy bears, with their small ears and sweet faces, but don't let it fool you: their teeth reveal they are ferocious carnivores. They are classified as marine mammals, possessing great power and strength. Their image can be seen everywhere in Alaska, as a symbol and icon of the hardiness of the locals. Bear cubs stay with their mothers until they are two, and only then are they trusted to fend for themselves. Their image can be seen everywhere in Alaska.

 

The Bald Eagle

The Bald Eagle has been on the endangered species list for long time, but here in Alaska these birds of prey seem to thrive. They do not get their white feathers on their head until they are four or five. They don't reach sexual maturity until that age either. Fun fact: the female is larger than the male and they build the largest known tree nest of any animal: 13 feet deep x8.5 wide, weighing an enormous amount. 

Of course, they'd need a substantial nest they weigh about 17 pounds and their wingspan is about 8 feet across, a bit less in warm climates, like in the south or Mexico.

The bald eagle is not really bold. it has dark plumes all over with white plumes on his head, and the beak, irises and talons are bright yellow.

As we know, the bald eagle is the National bird of the United States, is on the seals logos, postage stamps, coins and many other things relating to the Federal government.

To the Native Indians, like the Lakota of the Midwest, the bald eagle was a sacred bird. Its feathers are still used for ceremonies and spiritual practice.

Benjamin Franklin was not partial to the choice of this bird as our National symbol.

I'll quote his words, and admit to a sense of solidarity with them. To me, this is not how

I'd like my country to be represented - as a bird of prey, feeding opportunistically on carcasses or whatever isn't strong enough to fight back

Quote:

"For my own part. I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly... besides he is a rank coward: The little king bird not bigger than a sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district". Benjamin Franklin

 

The Orca

Whale watching is an awesome experience. These amazing mountain size creatures, are nevertheless, agile, elegant and bouncy as they splash around in the water. The orca is really a dolphin and it travels in pods. They weigh around 13,000 pounds, are black with varying patches of white and a gray dorsal fin, which is long and protruding. They also have the lifespan of the average human - 80 years.

The markings of white distinguish between one orca and another.

I could write about the sea otter or the Dall sheep,  the delightful looking mountain goat who's one of the least studied animals anywhere, since it resides in heights of10,000 feet, in some of the most remote and rugged areas, almost unreachable by humans,  Then there is the wolverine, the stuff of legends and myth, each interesting, but I chose instead to write about one of the strangest creatures  in nature. Something about the muskoxen arose my interest: the  combination of  a chest beating professional wrestler,  with the altruistic instinct of willing to die defending their precious young.

I was also fascinated with the strangeness of their appearance  and so the next in line will be the Muskoxen.

USFWS

 

Muskoxen

This is a most curious animal. It is strangely reminiscent of a rhinoceros, but with a wooly coat to protect it from the cold Arctic weather. The muskoxen spend most of their time charging each another and with the help of their extremely thick skulls and survive what would otherwise be certain death. Yet, if attacked by an outsider, like a big bear or a pack of wolves, they form a circle, facing outward, with their young ones protected in the middle.

These animals are related to sheep and goats, but they weigh 800 pounds, seemingly rather dumb, but very creative and protective of their young.

 

Wolves

Wolves live in over 85% of Alaska, in different sorts of habitat. They come in different colors, from black, grey to almost white. They are very much like dogs, (being of course the forefathers of Fido and co.) They are very social, pack animals, and each pack has an alpha male and alpha female. A pack consists on average of 6-8 members, led by the alphas, doing perfect 'team work'.

Since they work as a pack, they're able to take down far larger animals than any individual could on his/her own. A full grown moose or caribou have little chance of escape if attacked by a hungry pack of wolves. Dall sheep, mountain goats, deer, beavers and rodents are likely meal candidates for these animals.

 

Willow Ptarmigan

There are three kinds of Ptarmigans found in the state, but the Willow Ptarmigan, the most common of the three, has become the official state bird of Alaska in 1955.

Its plumage is brown and white in the summer, with a cute, crimson cap, but becomes pure white in winter, to blend in with the white snowy landscape

NPS/KENT MILLER

 

If you wish to see a more detailed and complete table of the vast variety of wildlife in Alaska

Here is the link:

http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=animals.listall





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