Hungry hedgehogs and a moose mystery

March 3, 2008

by Ivan Raconteur

A headline on “The Local” (Swedish news web site) reported the somber news from Sweden: Hungry hedgehogs face death by starvation.

It is difficult to say that sentence with a straight face.

Face it, unless one happens to be a hedgehog, or a member of an advocacy organization such as the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, hedgehogs are just plain funny.

The preservation society takes hedgehogs and their young (called hoglets, incidentally) very seriously, and publishes a “hogalogue” that includes all the hedgehog-related items a person could need.

According to the story, the nocturnal insectivores are in trouble because of the unusually mild winter.

Apparently, the creatures normally emerge from hibernation in late March or early April.

The warm weather has awakened the creatures early, and this is a problem because the worms and insects on which they feed are hard to come by in Sweden in February.

In response to the crisis, a Swedish wildlife expert asked for the public’s help in rescuing the hungry hedgehogs.

The recommended procedure is to bring the animal into the house and put it in a cat cage. The cage should be lined with newspaper, and straw to keep the creatures comfortable.

Hedgehogs can be fed dry dog or cat food moistened with water during their captivity.

In Sweden, according to the report, members of the public may keep wild animals indoors for a maximum of two days.

After that, they must be released back to the wild, where, with luck, they will resume their duties as the gardener’s friend (so named because their diet includes insects that are harmful to gardens).

Hedgehogs are always funny, but moose rarely are (except for the one who lives in Frostbite Falls with Rocket J. Squirrel).

One would not wish to meet an angry moose in a dark forest, nor would one care to encounter one of the giant beasts on the highway when one was out exercising one’s motorcycle. But one can’t help but admire these creatures that are a symbol of the north woods.

That symbol of the woods could soon become a symbol of survival.

More than 20 years ago, experts began to notice that an unusually high number of moose in northern Minnesota were dying.

They have yet to figure out why.

Between 1993 and 2002, the moose population in northwest Minnesota dropped dramatically from 3,500 to about 400.

Out of 114 moose that researchers have collared since 2002, only 28 were still alive this year.

Half of the others died from unknown causes.

Some of these deaths may be due to the spread of parasites, such as brain worm and the liver fluke, but the question arises, why are otherwise healthy animals, that have access to a good food supply, suddenly falling victim to disease in such high numbers?

The answer may be the result of the same problem that is troubling the hedgehogs: warm weather.

The mean midwinter temperature in northern Minnesota increased about 11 degrees in the 40-year period from 1961 to 2001. This may not seem like much, but as it relates to over-all climate, it is significant.

Humans may enjoy the warmer temperatures, but the change may be causing stress among the moose population.

Experts say that moose just don’t do as well in warm weather.

A lack of funding prevented any moose from being collared for the past two years, but this year, a $200,000 federal tribal wildlife grant will allow the research to resume.

The new collars will include thermometers to record the temperature in the moose’s habitat.

Researchers say this will help them to determine if the moose are finding ways to keep cool and stay healthy.

Why is this important?

The moose, apart from being an icon of northern Minnesota, may also be a barometer that will predict the health of other species that may not be as visible.

It is a lot more difficult to help the moose population than it is to help the hedgehogs.

One can’t exactly invite a moose into the house to enjoy a dose of air conditioning and a cold drink to help him cool down.

And, even if a moose would eat processed food, feeding one could be an expensive proposition.

Regardless of whether or not one believes in global warming, it is difficult to deny that things are changing, and, while those of us in northern climates may joke about the benefits of warmer weather, things are getting too hot for some of our neighbors.

The moose and the hedgehogs don’t think it is funny at all. What is bad for them could also be detrimental to us, even if we don’t understand the connection right now.

As that noted philosopher Red Green frequently reminds us, we’re all in this together.