There is one thing about mountain goats; they really blend into their surroundings. Considering they were about 10 yards off the road down a slight slope with a nearby parking area, it didn’t seem possible that no one saw them, but no one stopped. I don’t think people knew what we were photographing so intently as they drove by. We loved it!
This band (herd) of about 15 nannies (females) and kids (babies) was grazing and napping in the warm noon sun. One of the largest goats kept her eye on us, but we kept our distance and quietly took pictures. This time of year the males (billies) live on their own or with two or three other males. They will move into the herd during mating season–late October to early December. Spring and summer–females rule.
Mountain goats don’t actually belong to the goat family (Capra), but rather the Bovidae family which includes antelopes, gazelles, and cattle. Native to the northern Rocky Mountains, their scientific name of Oreamnos americanus actually means “a mountain lamb belonging to America”.
We are at an elevation of about 10,000 feet here in the Beartooth Range of the Rockies. This area is typical of the high elevation summer range of mountain goats. As winter approaches they will migrate to lower elevations, usually around 3,000 feet.
Goats are sure-footed on rocky cliffs. The hoof on each foot consists of a hard outer shell with a rubbery, concave footpad which acts like a suction cup when weight is applied. Also, their toes spread when they step giving them more agility over the rocky terrain.
Spring means shedding winter coats. Their winter coats consist of two layers of fur close to their bodies similar to sheep’s wool. Then an outer layer of long, thick, hollow hairs, called guard hairs, cover the woolly fur. This coat that protected them from bitter cold weather and frigid winds up to 100 mph is now shaggy and hot. With the warm weather, the heavy fur comes off in chunks and they help the process by rubbing on trees and bushes to speed the process.
Both nannies and billies have long, slender black horns. While the nanny’s have a sharp curve at the end of the horns, the male’s have a slow curve the entire length of the horn. The horns tell us of the goat’s age, having one less ring than its age. A two year old goat will have one ring, a three year old two rings, etc. Can you figure out the age of the adult in the picture below?
OK, that’s a tough one. The typical lifespan of mountain goats in the wild is 12-15 years. A closer look at her horns shows at least 12-13 rings making her almost 14 years old. She is certainly a grandma at this point.
Their life span is limited primarily by the wearing down of their teeth until they can no longer chew the vegetation they eat. They have very few predators in their alpine habitat of steep slopes and rocky cliffs. The trade-off for such a predator-free environment is the ever-present risk of avalanches, especially in the spring.
Both males and females grow beards as they get older and have large, powerful shoulders to help them climb and paw the ground for the vegetation that makes up their diet. They are also very nimble and can jump nearly 12 feet in a single bound.
Mountain goats are big animals and the largest mammal living in these high-elevation environments. Their bodies range from four to five feet long with a short tail about six inches long. They stand 3-4 feet at the shoulder and weight 100-300 pounds. Including their heads in the height, these older adult females are taller and weigh significantly more than me!
Well, we have had a wonderful visit with these unique and special creatures. Time to move on, but I agree with this girl’s yawn–it would be a great time for a nap in the sun.
Until next time . . .