Some of you might have seen photos of the alpine ibex climbing the almost vertical wall of the Cingino Dam in Italy to lick the salt and wondered how they can do it without falling off.
It is for the same reason that our mountain goats can climb seemingly sheer cliffs with the greatest of ease. Even the kids just a few days old can be seen playing and jumping around on death-defying slopes.
Mountain goats (Oreamnos americanus or ‘the mountain lamb of America’) are not true goats but are related to antelopes. Like domestic goats and alpine ibex, the mountain goats have specially adapted feet with cloven hooves which can spread apart to give more stability. Try making a V with your index and middle finger and push against something with the tips of the fingers. The more you push, the more the fingers want to spread.
The front two “toes” are hard and curved along the outer edges. They surround large, softer pads which have rough surfaces to provide friction and almost act like suction pads. In addition, two dew claws behind the hooves assist with balance.
“A Beast the Colour of Winter” as described by Douglas Chadwick in his book of the same name, mountain goats are superbly adapted to surviving in bitter winter conditions.
Their yellowish-white coat consists of two layers – an inner, soft fluffy layer and an outer layer of hollow guard hairs containing air that is warmed by the animal’s body. The goats also search out caves or overhangs for protection against severe winds and snow.
Mountain goats do not have many predators that can handle the steep, rocky, escape terrain and in winter their white coats mean they are harder to see. The main causes of mortality are accidental falls, avalanches, and starvation. Disturbance in winter can result in reduced survivability and loss of fetuses.
Both the males (billies) and females (nannies) have sharply pointed horns that grow annually and are used for protection. The male horns curve gradually backwards from a larger base, whereas the slimmer female horns curve back more suddenly closer to the tips.
Based on the horns alone, it is hard to tell nannies and billies apart from a distance. Nannies, kids, and juveniles tend to hang out in bigger groups for protection. Billies are more solitary or will hang out with one or two other males, at least until breeding season.
Primarily an alpine and subalpine species, they will drop down into more sheltered forests in winter and even down to sea level along the Skeena River.
British Columbia has over half of the total world population of mountain goats. Throughout their range their numbers are declining largely due to disturbance and hunting.