Image: Moose
Pat Wellenbach  /  AP
A moose named "Zero" stands in a wildlife park in Gray, Maine. Researchers say the nose's structure allows moose to close their nostrils while foraging for aquatic plants.
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updated 5/6/2004 9:16:36 PM ET 2004-05-07T01:16:36

Spindly legs and oversize antlers are all part of the moose’s charm, but it’s that big bulbous nose that makes it a cartoonist’s dream.

Two researchers intrigued by the size and shape of the moose’s nose decided to take a closer look, providing the first detailed anatomical analysis of the unconventional snout that hangs over the front lip of Maine’s official animal.

Among their findings: the nose’s structure allows moose to close their nostrils while foraging for aquatic plants.

Lawrence Witmer, a professor of anatomy at Ohio University, has studied the noses of many animals alive and extinct, from the common white-tailed deer to prehistoric creatures such as duck-billed dinosaurs.

He said he was surprised by the lack of research on the moose muzzle, so he and graduate student Andy Clifford went to work. Their findings were published last month in the Journal of Zoology in London.

“We know little about the moose nose, despite the fact that they’re common animals in the northern half of the hemisphere,” Witmer said in a telephone interview from his office in Athens, Ohio.

Notable nose
The moose is the largest creature in the Maine woods, reaching more than 1,000 pounds. Its nose, with nostrils up to 4 inches (10 centimeters) wide, droops over its front lips, setting it apart from the white-tailed deer and other cousins.

As part of their research, Witmer and Clifford examined the heads of moose that were hit and killed by motorists in Canada.

They used hospital equipment to examine the internal anatomy and dissected the samples to get a closer look at the physical structure, including nerves, cartilage and other components.

Eliminating theories
The researchers were able to discount the idea that the large size of the nasal cavity had something to do with heat regulation.

They also looked at whether the widely spaced nostrils gave the creatures any special capabilities, such as stereo olfaction. But they weren’t able to make a conclusive determination.

One of their most striking findings was that the nose has a mechanism for keeping water out when the moose wades into a pond and plunges underwater to pluck aquatic plants to eat.

“Moose, as it turns out, have a mechanism to close their nostrils,” Witmer said. “It’s part of this crazy nostril apparatus that moose have changed their faces to develop.”

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