Minnesota researchers will soon get text messages from dead moose.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said Friday it will conduct research aimed at better understanding the sharp decline in the state's moose population. Through a combination of GPS technology and implanted devices, researchers think they can get a quicker handle on the locations and causes of moose deaths.
Researchers believe the study has value beyond the iconic giant of the north woods, because the ailments killing moose could shed light on health threats to other species, including humans.
Starting later this month, wildlife resource officials plan to capture 100 adults and 50 calves in northeastern Minnesota. All of them will be fitted with $2,500 tracking collars and many will also have $900 mortality implant transmitters put in their digestive tracks.
Those with the implants will be the most valuable research targets because when an animal's heart stops beating it will trigger an instant text message to researchers, who will get coordinates for finding the carcass to help them retrieve it within 24 hours. That's key because moose organs decompose quickly or the animals get ravaged by prey, meaning researchers can't get a good read on what's causing them to die.
"We know the population is declining. We don't know exactly why," said Lou Cornicelli, the DNR's wildlife research manager.
Alerts from the moose with only GPS collars will go out if there is inactivity for more than six hours. Cornicelli compared the technology to "life alert" necklaces some senior citizens use to summon emergency responders. "It actually sends a text message to researchers saying, 'Hey, I'm likely dead.' "
Under older technology, it could take a week to 10 days to find the dead animal. Even if scavengers get to the dead moose first, the new equipment will log key vital statistics as well as ambient temperatures.
Last year there were an estimated 4,200 moose in the state - about half as many as there were in a 2006 species survey. Moose can live as long as 20 years but most die much sooner. Erika Butler, a wildlife veterinarian, pointed to a troubling trend of more moose dying in what should be their prime years and in seasons that are typically more favorable to their health.
The equipment and resulting data will actually feed into multiple studies. The two main studies are expected to cost a combined $1.6 million, with much of the money coming from a special trust fund devoted to environment and natural resources programs.
Butler said the moose research could have human health implications. She cited prior studies of moose carcasses that altered health officials to the existence of a strain of mosquito-borne encephalitis that could threaten horses and people.
Officials said they may not be able to reverse conditions causing the moose population decline, but they hope the research will allow them to mitigate things.
"You want to understand what's going on," said moose project leader Glenn DelGiudice. "You can't just try to manage by the seat of the pants."