Mountain goats are king of the castle

Mountain goats' ability to climb on rock faces is legendary. 

Animals and plants have colonized every possible environment, even the most inhospitable alpine reaches. That’s where the most complete and supreme mountaineer on the continent—the magnificent mountain goat—thrives.

This white-bearded ruminant—meaning it has a four-chambered stomach—spends its entire life of about 10 years among the most jagged and snowy peaks. Its body is so perfectly designed for the harsh winter alpine environs of icy mountain ledges, gale force winds and minus-40 degree temps that it rarely, irrespective of the ferocity of a storm, alters its daily routine.

Males (billies) and females (nannies) both have 12-inch horns, but billies weigh slightly more (287 pounds) than nannies (220 pounds). Both mark their territory by rubbing their horns, which have glands at the base, on vegetation. Deep chests and tremendously developed shoulders enable strength for climbing and the ability to paw through heavy and crusted snow in search of food.

A two-layered, long white coat, with coarse 8-inch hollow outer hairs, creates an excellent dead air insulation space. Beneath is a three-inch-thick, densely interwoven wool as fine as cashmere. This wool creates a foam-like quilt of trapped air that even the frigid mountain air cannot penetrate.

In fact, mountain goats spend much of the summer trying to keep cool and that’s after they shed their winter coats!

The white coats are perfect camouflage for the high country as can be attested by those who have spent hours (including me) looking through binoculars in search of a mere glimpse of this awesome beast.

Their wide spreading, two-toed hooves are perhaps the most ingenious rock-gripping devices ever designed. The hoof is hard; each of the two wrap-around toenails is used to catch and hold a crack or tiny knob of rock. The front edge of the hoof is tapered; useful for digging into dirt or packed snow when the goat is going up hill. In addition, mountain goats have special traction pads, which protrude slightly past the nail and essentially create skid-proof pads. Four hooves. Two toes per hoof. Eight different specially adapted soles.

Their ability to climb on rock faces is legendary. In an emergency, I have seen mountain goats cart-wheeling from one ledge to another. They must have steady, strong feet; if they fall, they die. And obviously, there’s no fear of height.

These are thrifty beasts whose four-chambered stomachs allow them to digest cellulose fiber from wood and derive energy-rich fatty acids, carbohydrates and B-vitamins. Grass-like plants called sedges are a very important part of their diet and they stay green even under snow.

Goats travel in small bands of nannies, kids and yearlings. Billies stay in their own bands except during the November rut. The elders show the younger goats the frequented mountain paths, and watchful eyes are always kept for predators like grizzlies, cougars, lynx and eagles.

Blood-sucking winter, wood and ear ticks constantly harass mountain goats but rarely take down a healthy beast. Humans have much to learn and benefit from how mountain goats adapt to the cold, tolerate insects and exist on such small amounts of food.

Earth Dr. Reese Halter is a broadcaster, conservation biologist and author of “The Insatiable Bark Beetle.”