Living in a vertical world

Posted: Thursday, January 17, 2002

Mountain goats are one of Alaska's most interesting animals. Not a true goat at all, but a descendent of the goat-antelope family from Europe, they came to North America over the Bering Strait land bridge during the last ice age.

Because they live in rugged, remote terrain, little was known of them before 1900. Mountain goat hides had been obtained by explorer Capt. Cook as early as the late 1700s, but he presumed the specimens were of white bears, and the species was not described.

Today, natural populations are found in the northern Rocky Mountains, British Columbia, Yukon and Alaska. In Alaska, mountain goats are found on the Southcentral and Southeast Alaska mainland, with small populations established by transplants on Kodiak Island, Baranof Island and Revilla Island.

Mountain goats are well suited to life in a vertical world.

Their oddly short legs and massive chest and shoulders make them slow runners, but then, running is not something one does much on 6-inch ledges overhanging 3,000-foot drops. With their powerful shoulders, they climb by pulling themselves up as much as pushing with hind legs. Their hooves are marvelously adapted to climbing, with a tough nail-like outer shell surrounding a soft, no-skid inner pad, and well-developed dew claws that give added traction.

Mountain goats have long, hollow guard hairs up to 6 inches long that overlay a dense wooly undercoat, keeping the animal warm and dry during Alaska's severe winter storms.

Mountain goats congregate in winter on south-facing, windblown cliffs where snow accumulation is minimal. When the mosses, lichens, grasses and shrubs that goats depend on are depleted, or unavailable due to snow, they move down to lower elevations where they find shelter in steep forested sites, and can eat their fill of hemlock.

Occasionally, goats in Southeast will move right down to the beach, but here, they are especially vulnerable to predation by wolves. In the high country, few things can reach them, and they are safe from other animals.

But life in a vertical world has its own unique hazards. Goats have been seen triggering avalanches as they walk snow cornices, and some have been seen falling to their death when they slip, or the ledge they are walking on crumbles. If fate is kind, a goat can live as long as 14 years in the wild.

Male goats are called "billies," female goats are called "nannies" and newborn goats are called "kids." Oddly enough, a grouping of mountain goats is called a "trip" of goats an oxymoron if there ever was one.

Billies and nannies can be difficult to tell apart at a distance, as both sexes sport sharp, black horns. Although billies are 10 to 30 percent larger than nannies, and can reach 300 pounds, the female of this species clearly rules the roost. Nannies are frequently seen chasing billies away from preferred feeding sites with aggressive stabs of their horns. Perhaps this accounts for another peculiar goat adaptation the thick leather-like skin that pads their rumps.

Living in Juneau presents us with a wonderful opportunity to see these special animals. Whether viewed from afar through a spotting scope at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, or up close and personal from a mountain-top perch, the sight of this animal carrying on a life in the wind and the clouds always leaves us in awe.

Matthew Kirchhoff is a wildlife biologist with Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and a member of Juneau Audubon Society. Contact society members at ckent@alaska.net.



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