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Episode 242: The Rugged Rocky Mountain Goat

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The mountain goat (Oreamnos americanus) is a stocky, shaggy coated species that are considered to be emblematic of the rugged alpine wilderness. Many animal documentaries have shown these amazing ungulates racing around sheer cliff faces, seemingly defying gravity as they outrun predators or move from cliff to another looking for food. They have distinctive beards and gleaming white coats that protect them from the biting cold temperatures (as low as -51 degrees Fahrenheit!) and camouflage them against the snow from their predators, cougars, wolves and brown bears.  They are currently classified as Least Concern on the IUCN red list with an estimated 48,000 to 62,000 mature individuals across North America, but like almost all species on our planet they are at risk from habitat disturbance and loss and human harassment. Of course climate change could seriously impact the stability of this species, especially given their reliance on alpine habitat.

Mountain Goat

Classification and Evolution

The mountain goat is a part of the even toed ungulate order Artiodactyla and is part of the Bovidae family which includes antelopes, gazelles, and cattle. The mountain goat is the only living species of the genus Oreamnos (oros: Greek for mountain, amnos: Greek for lamb). 

This species is not considered to be a true goat (of the genus Capra) and mitochondrial nuclear DNA analysis has revealed that they diverged independently from the rest of the genus and are most closely related to the Chamois and more distantly the Muskox and Goral [1]. It is hypothesized that the ancestors of the Mountain Goats seen today crossed the Bering Land Bridge between Alaska and Siberia sometime during the Pleistocene [3]. Further studies on the genetics of the Mountain Goat have revealed signatures in the genome that indicate that the species went through a genetic bottleneck some time around the last glacial maximum, estimated at around 18,000 – 24,000 years ago. Two populations were driven into separate areas by the ice sheets (known as glacial refugias), and once the ice receded, they returned to their larger range. Despite this historical reduction in genetic diversity there is a lot of optimism among researchers that this species might be more resilient than first thought to the climatic fluctuations caused by climate change [2]. 

Range and Habitat 

 The goats range from the Yukon region and Alaska through to Utah, but the largest population is found in British Columbia. In places like Kodiak Island, the Olympic Peninsula and the Rocky Mountains the goats were introduced successfully here despite the fact that they were never native in this area. They occasionally move down to sea levels but almost entirely use alpine and sub-alpine habitat across North America, which are highly inaccessible and inhospitable areas with extremely harsh winters and high winds. They forage for forbs, grasses, sedges, ferns, moss, lichens, twigs and leaves in Alpine meadows near cliffs which they use to escape from predators [4], and they tend to travel distances of around 1km a day for males and anywhere between 2 and 5 km for females, especially if they are moving in a nursery group with kids. In the summer they move to lower elevations to use mineral salt licks to add sodium to their diet as researchers identified the forage they feed on doesn’t have enough of the mineral [5]. 

Physiology and adaptation facts 

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of these goats is their ability to climb steep, rocky cliff faces in incredible, nimble feats of mountaineering that put even the best mountaineers to shame. People have reported seeing the goats jump 12 feet in one single bound! They have extremely muscular shoulders, stocky limbs and a very low center of mass. Video recordings have allowed researchers to closely study the biomechanics of these goats and they identified that the neck and shoulder musculature were important to the goats ability to propel itself up the steep slopes it is so comfortable traversing, and the goats can modify their center of mass during the arduous pull up the slope [6]. 

Mountain goats will go to crazy lengths to get their delicious salt licks! Image from the dodo.com

To compliment this amazing physiology the mountain goats also have cloven hooves with two toes that can spread wide to allow the animal to improve its balance. On the bottom of these toes are rough pads that provide grip, just like the best hiking boots you can buy! They also have very well-developed dew claws which is another adaptation to help them climb.

Analysis of a video recording of a mountain goat traversing a 45 degree incline that allowed researchers to identify how the goats physiology allowed it to perform such a feat Lewinson, R.T. and Stefanyshyn, D.J. 2016

Threats and conservation 

Mountain Goats are currently listed as Least Concern and fortunately their inhospitable environment keeps them largely protected from any threats. However, mountain goats are hunted for sport and although this is regulated, their slow life history and reproductive rates mean that their numbers could easily be harvested below a sustainable level. They are also known to be particularly sensitive to human disturbance, more so than many other ungulate species. Currently mountain goats often exist in small, fragmented populations that are particularly vulnerable to environmental change or human disturbance, and researchers are particularly keen to monitor these populations closely and sample their genetics to ensure they aren’t losing too much of their diversity and to guide conservation management and harvest control [7]. The increasing recreational use of aircraft such as helicopters around their habitat is a big concern, as the goats are very sensitive to their presence. 

In Canada the goats are protected in eight national parks across the country and outside of these protected areas there is limited, licensed hunting allowed. Goats have been reintroduced to many areas of their former range and habitat management is a big part of ensuring these populations remain stable. 

In the United States, the goats are present in nine federally protected areas, although most herds are not in protected areas and so are susceptible to hunting. 

Current conservation methods include:

  1. Habitat protection
  2. Introductions and re-introductions 
  3. Regulation of hunting at sustainable levels

Researchers suggest the following measures should be proposed:

  1. Obtain more accurate population numbers for Canada to develop better management plans 
  2. Carry out more research on the possible effects of climate change on their food source, snow cover and habitat availability. [8]

Conservation organizations, conservation heroes and tips!

The Rocky Mountain Goat Alliance (https://goatalliance.org/)

  • Their mission is to increase and enhance the range and management of Rocky Mountain Goats across their range. 
  • Educate the public about ongoing conservation and raise funds for their projects. 

The IUCN SSC Caprinae Specialist Group (wild sheep and goats)

  • This is a network of volunteer scientists and conservationists working to research the behaviour, taxonomy, conservation and management of wild sheep and goats around the globe. 
  • They provide advice to governments, NGOs and researchers on the conservation and management of wild Caprinae. 

What can you do?

    • Climate change is a threat to almost all species: think about your energy usage, can you cut down anywhere? 
    • If you live around the Mountains Goats, don’t harass them, respect their space! If you’re out hiking in the area, be mindful of all the species around you! 
    • Support fund raising efforts if you can.
    • Get involved in citizen science projects.


[1] Shafer, A.B. and Hall, J.C. ‘Placing the mountain goat: a total evidence approach to testing alternative hypotheses.’ 2010. 

[2] Shafer, A.B. Fan, C.W. Côté, S.D. and Coltman, D.W. ‘Lack of genetic diversity in immune genes predates glacial isolation in the North American Mountain Goat (Oreamnos americanus). 2003.

[3] Cowan, I.M. and McCrory, W. ‘Variation in the mountain goat Oreamnos americanus.’ 1970. 

[4] Brandborg, S.M. ‘Life history and management of the mountain goat in Alaska.’ 1977. 

[5] Hebert, D.M. ‘Natural salt licks as a part of the ecology of the mountain goat.’ 1967. 

[6] Lewinson, R.T. and Stefanyshyn, D.J. ‘A descriptive analysis of the climbing mechanics of a mountain goat (Oreamnos americanus). 2016. 

[7] White, K.S. Levi, T. Breen, J. Britt, M. Meröndun, D. Shakeri, Y.N. Porter, B. and Shafer, A.B.A. ‘Integrating genetic data and demographic modelling to facilitate conservation of small, isolated mountain goat populations.’ 2021. 

[8] Festa-Bianchet, M. 2008. Oreamnos americanusThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2008: e.T42680A10727959. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2008.RLTS.T42680A10727959.en. Downloaded on 09 August 2021.

Massive Thank You to Rachael Da Silva from the UK! Please follow her on Instagram and her wildlife artwork at tilly_mint08

September 01, 2021
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