Moose Alces alces gigas in Alaska, USA, exhibit extreme sexual dimorphism, with adult males possessing large, elaborate antlers. Antler size and conformation are influenced by age, nutrition and genetics, and these bony structures serve to establish social rank and affect mating success. Population density, combined with anthropogenic effects such as harvest, is thought to influence antler size. Antler size increased as densities of moose decreased, ostensibly a density-dependent response related to enhanced nutrition at low densities. The vegetation type where moose were harvested also affected antler size, with the largest-antlered males occupying more open habitats. Hunts with guides occurred in areas with low moose density, minimized hunter interference and increased rates of success. Such hunts harvested moose with larger antler spreads than did non-guided hunts. Knowledge and abilities allowed guides to satisfy demands of trophy hunters, who are an integral part of the Alaskan economy. Heavy harvest by humans was also associated with decreased antler size of moose, probably via a downward shift in the age structure of the population resulting in younger males with smaller antlers. Nevertheless, density-dependence was more influential than effects of harvest on age structure in determining antler size of male moose. Indeed, antlers are likely under strong sexual selection, but we demonstrate that resource availability influenced the distribution of these sexually selected characters across the landscape. We argue that understanding population density in relation to carrying capacity (K) and the age structure of males is necessary to interpret potential consequences of harvest on the genetics of moose and other large herbivores. Our results provide researchers and managers with a better understanding of variables that affect the physical condition, antler size, and perhaps the genetic composition of populations, which may be useful in managing and modelling moose populations.
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Vol. 13 • No. 1