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Hall of North American Mammals: New Science for a Classic Hall

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On Exhibit posts

After more than a year of restoration work, the classic habitat dioramas in the Hall of North American Mammals, which reopens this fall, seem more vibrant and realistic than ever. While the diorama scenes haven’t changed, decades of scientific research and discovery are offering new insight into the stories they tell. Below, the first in a series of posts on the new science behind the hall, this one about the majestic diorama of Alaska moose.

Additional time in the field has given scientists fresh ways of understanding the hall’s iconic scenes, whose latest science stories are illuminated by new wall labels that accompany the dioramas. These include the drama unfolding in one of the largest dioramas: the Alaska moose.

At first glance, it appears as if two male moose battle in an Alaskan peat bog during the fall rut while a female stands off to the side, waiting for a winner, her would-be mate.

Female Moose
Female moose, Hall of North American Mammals.
© AMNH/Natural Science Conservation

New field research has revealed this scene isn’t so simple. “For many years, we thought females were quite passive in these encounters,” says Ross D. E. MacPhee, a curator in the Division of Mammalogy who served as the supervising scientist on the restoration. “But females may also exert a choice.” 

The discovery appears in a study by a team of biologists who traveled by ski and foot to observe these giant mammals for over 500 hours in the Alaskan wilderness. They found that as smaller male moose tried to woo, females objected with a “protest moan” that could ignite male-male battles and tip the odds in the females’ reproductive favor.

“The females will emit a low wailing sound, which garners the attention of other males in the vicinity,” explains MacPhee. “It’s a signal that she’s not satisfied with the suitors and that others may apply.” This type of indirect female choice, also found among elephant seals and pronghorns, is rarely documented in large mammals, where the focus traditionally has been on clashing males.

Visit the fully restored Hall of North American Mammals starting on October 27, 2012.

A version of this story appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.