Beavers are second only to humans in their capacity to manipulate the environment. By building and maintaining dams, busy beavers can completely change the vegetation, animal life, and other components of the watersheds in which they live. The ponds created by the dams are the beaver's first defense against predators like the lynx and wolf. Beavers are built for underwater work. Their noses and ears have valves that close when beavers submerge. The beaver's large front teeth—or incisors—protrude in front of their lips, enabling them to cut and chew submerged wood without getting water in their mouths. Their broad tails function as rudders, helping beavers to maneuver large logs to their lodges and dams. An orthodontist's nightmare, a beaver's front teeth never stop growing; beavers must gnaw, chew, and chop nearly all the time. So by keeping up their homes, beavers are also keeping down their dental bills.
Did you know that it's probably not a good idea to try and outrun a bison? Although they seem clumsy, bison—also known as buffalo—can run 35 miles per hour. Bison are North America's largest native land mammals. Bulls stand up to six feet tall at the shoulder, are 10 feet long, and can weigh more than a ton. And boy, do these big buffalo bellow. During the autumn rut, or mating season, a bellowing bull can be heard a mile away. Most baby bison are born in May. Calves can stand within 30 minutes of birth, run within hours, and begin grazing within a week. Alaska bison have been known to live 20 years. To control parasites, bison enjoy wallowing in the mud and rubbing against trees, boulders, and other large, stationary objects. Surprisingly, they can scramble over fences seven feet tall and swim across rivers a mile wide. So, if you are out wandering about and see a wallowing buffalo, wander on—but no slower than 35 miles per hour. Did you know ... that Alaska used to have its very own species of buffalo? The wood bison, as it's known, became extinct in Alaska several hundred years ago—probably due to changes in the natural environment. The wood bison still survives in northern Canada. It's related to the more familiar plains bison of the American West but is darker, larger, and better suited to life in the north. Although plains bison are not native to Alaska, 23 of these shaggy beasts were brought to Fairbanks in 1928 and released near Delta Junction. Since then, the herd has grown to 475 animals, making it one of the largest free-ranging buffalo herds in the world. Animals from the Delta herd have been used to start three other herds in Alaska at Farewell Lake, Chitina, and the Copper River Delta. Bison hunting is so popular that in 1996 nearly 18,000 people applied for 120 permits to hunt Delta bison.
Thousands of years before high-performance athletes started to stuff themselves with pasta, black bears were loading up with carbohydrate-rich berries to help them get through the winter. Blueberries are the main late-summer component of the black bear's fat-building diet. Think about that when you're eating your next pop tart. But the berry season lasts only a few short weeks; the rest of the time black bears are far less particular. When they emerge from their dens in the spring, black bears feed mostly on new shoots and other tender vegetation. After breakfast, black bears set out on a culinary ramble that could include winter-killed animals, newborn moose or deer fawns, insect larvae, bird eggs, and small mammals such as snowshoe hares. In coastal areas, black bears move to streams in mid-summer to feast on spawning salmon. he bear's fondness for a well-balanced diet has one major drawback, however; bears that live near towns sometimes acquire an insatiable taste for garbage. Relocated bears have returned hundreds of miles to their favorite dumps. They are genuine junk food junkies.
Did you know ... that male and female black bears cannot tolerate each other's company except to breed? Hmm.... You'd think they would have a lot of interests in common—browsing for berries, rooting around for bugs and grubs, and rifling through garbage. Although breeding occurs in June and July, the fertilized eggs of the female do not begin to develop until autumn. Biologists believe this phenomenon, called delayed implantation, occurs so that the bears' young are born when their chances of survival are greatest. Gestation takes about 10 weeks following implantation. Were it not for the delay, sows would give birth just as winter was setting in. Instead, black bear cubs are born in the safety of winter dens and emerge in spring when food is plentiful. Cubs are raised in single-parent families; father bears do not help with daycare.
There are places in Southeastern Alaska where you can find brown bear populations as dense as one bear per square mile. This practically constitutes overcrowding from the bears' standpoint. On Alaska's North Slope, brown bear densities drop to around 1 bear per 100 square miles, giving the big grizzlies room to roam. Biologists attribute the extremes in bear densities to the richer food supply along temperate coasts, where bears feed heavily on berries and salmon. Alaska has more than 98 percent of the U.S. population of brown bears. Biologists estimate there are about 30,000 of these big bruins in Alaska. Bears are typically solitary creatures and usually avoid the company of other bears.
Caribou Fun Facts
Did you know that Alaska has almost twice as many caribou as people? Alaska's human population numbers around 600,000, while there are over one million caribou in the state. And the government doesn't even pay them to live here! The largest herd is the Western Arctic herd with almost half the total caribou in Alaska. Other big herds are the Porcupine and the Mulchatna herds. There are twenty-eight smaller wild herds ranging from the North Slope to the Canadian border northeast of Tok, and a few herds of domesticated caribou—or reindeer—on the Seward Peninsula. Although they're found almost exclusively in Alaska and Canada now, caribou once ranged widely in northern North America and in Northern Europe. But overhunting and habitat destruction led to their eradication from Germany during the Roman era, Great Britain during the Middle Ages, and Poland in the 16th century. Caribou were gone from most of the United States by the beginning of the 20th century. Did you know ... that caribou are almost constantly on the move? Some caribou migrate more than 3,000 miles each year—farther than any other land animal. They travel in herds every fall and spring from their wintering to their calving grounds, and arrive just in time to think about heading back. Biologists have counted more than 640,000 of these northern nomads in July, spread out across Alaska's North Slope. Caribou are built to travel. Their large, concave hooves hold them up like snowshoes—both on winter snow and on the soggy summer tundra. In water, those hooves become enormous paddles. Caribou can swim across fast-flowing rivers and large lakes with ease. The hollow hairs of their coat help keep them afloat. A caribou in a hurry can run 50 miles per hour. But you could hardly hurry a caribou when he's only hurrying from where he's headed to.
Coyotes were unknown in Alaska until the early 1900s. These relative newcomers to the state are also known as "song dogs," since coyotes are the most vocal of the dog family. The members of a coyote pack howl to keep track of one another and reunite packs that become separated. >
When hunting, coyotes sometimes pursue prey in relays, enabling packs to run down animals that could escape a single coyote. The list of prey able to escape a coyote is short, however, because coyotes can run in bursts as fast as forty miles per hour. They can also travel up to 400 miles at a stretch, stopping only occasionally to howl for news. For their first three weeks of life, coyote pups subsist entirely on mother's milk. After that, they eat food regurgitated by their moms. Pups nip and claw at their mother's lips to prompt them to cough up these savory morsels.
It takes a Dall ram about eight years to grow the majestic, circular horns that are the trademark of this species. And that these horns are made of keratin, the same substance as fingernails. These all-white sheep live their short lives on alpine ridges and meadows, and on steep, craggy slopes. When Dall sheep sense danger they flock to rocks and crags to elude predators. The females—or ewes—give birth on these steep slopes in May and June. Lambs are sure-footed just hours after being born. In winter, Dall sheep paw through snow on wind-blown slopes to browse on dry, frozen grasses and sedges. To balance their diet, these hardy animals travel long distances to eat dirt at "licks," sites rich in minerals.
BLACK TAILED DEER
Deer are some of the noisiest animals in Alaska's coastal rain forests. Sitka black-tailed deer are very vocal animals, though it's unlikely anyone will rush to remake the Bambi soundtrack based on this news. Their repertoire of sounds resembles that of sheep, complete with bleating, baaing, and grunting. Researchers have identified at least twelve different signals that Sitka black-tailed deer use. Deer are social animals and often move in herds dominated by an older female. The species inhabits the Pacific coast from central California to Prince William Sound and Kodiak. Their fur is well adapted to the rainy climate of the coast. Fawns are born in early June and weigh 6 to 8 pounds; they stand about 12 inches tall. The Bambi look—the spotted coat—is short-lived. By the end of the summer juvenile deer have turned brownish-gray like their parents. Did you know ... that Sitka black-tailed deer don't have upper teeth in the front of their mouths? That goes a long way toward explaining their table manners. At mealtime they hardly use what teeth they have. Deer gulp down their food without chewing and instead more or less mash the food against the hard, rubbery surface of their palates. Like its cousin the cow, the Sitka black-tailed deer depends on micro-organisms in part of its stomach to break down food. The micro-organisms are specially adapted to each of the different foods in a deer's natural diet. If a deer eats something outside the specialty of its resident microbes, it's in trouble. In fact, deer have been known to literally die of starvation on a full stomach. A properly fed deer can take pleasure in a good meal a second time. After a period of feeding, deer usually bed down in thick brush, regurgitate food, and chew their "cud."
During courtship male mountain goats often crawl to females on their bellies. Although this courtship technique is not commonly practiced by humans, it may prove effective for the desperate suitor. Male goats, or "billies," often wander considerable distances in search of receptive females, or "nannies." Mountain goats breed in November and December. Sometimes mountain goats are mistaken for juvenile or female Dall sheep, but goats are easily distinguished by their longer hair, deeper chests, and black horns. Biologists believe that mountain goats adapted to living in high, rugged terrain to avoid predators such as wolves, bears, and cougars. Still, goats are far from ideally suited to their alpine domain; many mountain goats show healed wounds and missing teeth, injuries they likely received from falls. It's also likely that snow slides are the leading cause of natural mortality among mountain goats.
Alaska's moose are the largest of their species as well as the largest member of the deer family. Moose weigh between 1,000 and 1,600 pounds and are a celebrated symbol of the Alaskan wilderness. Where all this charisma comes from is anyone's guess. Moose can be irritable and fiercely protective of their young—they've been known to charge people, horses, cars, and even locomotives. Moose protect themselves from mosquitoes and other biting insects by submerging themselves in shallow ponds. Alaska's human inhabitants have not adopted this technique for escaping bugs, though a few have probably tried it. While bulls grow majestic antlers up to 70 inches wide, cows have a face only their mothers could love. Moose calves are adorable ... at least for a while.
You had better not try to pet a baby muskox. When a young or injured animal is threatened, adult muskoxen form a fortress-like ring around it. The ring is one of nature's not-so-subtle warning signals telling you to back off. Luckily, people can get what they want most from muskoxen without having to lay siege. Muskoxen underwool—called qiviut—is considered the warmest in the world and can be gathered from scrub growth, boulders, and other objects muskoxen rub against. Alaska's original population of muskoxen was eliminated by 1900. In 1930 Congress appropriated money for the purchase of thirty-four Greenland muskoxen, which were brought to the University of Alaska. In 1935 the animals were moved to Nunivak Island, and gradually herds were restored on Alaska's mainland. The statewide muskoxen population now exceeds 2500 animals.
River otters spend half of their lives sleeping. That can mean ten years of snoozing for many otters! Well, it takes a lot of rest for the river—or land—otter to protect its reputation for playfulness and activity. River otters do not have tail flippers, but only webbed hind feet. In water, otters are limited to speeds of around six miles per hour, but they can dive to depths of 60 feet and stay submerged for more than four minutes. On land, river otters scoot along at about fifteen miles per hour in a combination of running and sliding. That could wear anyone out. Although their vision is not especially good, river otters have well-developed senses of smell and hearing. They also use their whiskers to detect prey when hunting and obstructions when swimming. And speaking of smell, the animals can discharge a strong, disagreeable scent from a pair of anal glands when threatened or disturbed. So, let those sleeping river otters lie!
Gray wolves travel greater distances than any other terrestrial mammal except the caribou. While the average size of a pack's territory in Alaska is about 600 square miles, on Alaska's North Slope it can be as large as 1,000 square miles. Packs usually consist of eight to twelve animals, some of whom may travel more than twenty miles daily in search of food. Many people harbor the romantic misconception that gray wolves mate for life. In fact, a male often will mate with more than one female and vice versa. Each year thousands of young wolves leave their packs and form new packs. To ease their travels in the deep snow of winter, gray wolves sometimes follow trails left by snow machines and dog teams. In fact, gray wolf packs prefer packed trails. While gray wolves inhabit 85 percent of Alaska, in the rest of the country only Minnesota has a substantial population of wild wolves.
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