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Mammals fight over scarce resources in brutal environments

A new study published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution has identified and discussed previously unknown high-altitude contests between two of America’s most impressive mammals – mountain goats and bighorn sheep – over access to minerals that were unavailable before because of to the presence of glaciers (which are now vanishing due to climate change). Moreover, the study also discusses other how several animal species contest access to other coveted resources, such as desert water and shade, in the brutal environments of Africa, Asia, and North America. 

“While humans continue to be justifiably concerned about the climate-induced havoc we’re wreaking planet-wide, much has remained unknown about species aggression among our mammalian brethren,” said study lead author Joel Berger, a senior scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Chair of Wildlife Conservation at Colorado State University (CSU). 

The scientists gathered fragmentary information dating backwards four decades, on species as diverse as marmots and baboons, oryx and elephants, and rhinoceros which, along with white horses, displaced native pronghorn, mule deer, or elk from desert waters.

The investigation revealed that mountain goats emerged victorious over bighorn sheep in over 98 percent of the contests at three sites along 900-miles gradient of above-treeline mountainous habitats from Colorado, U.S. to Alberta, Canada. While these goats are native to regions from northwestern U.S., they are exotic in Colorado or Wyoming, making scientists worry that they may displace or outcompete native bighorns.

Although the role of climate change on interactions to access resources remains largely unknown, it is clear that human activities have both increased and decreased access by wildlife to scarce resources such as minerals and water through road building and the construction of artificial water sources.

“It’s been exciting to gather data in wind, snow, and cold on goats and sheep in both Glacier and at Mt. Evans, Colorado, which reaches to more than 14,000 feet, [where] our observations both at close range and from distances of more than a mile provided unique opportunities for detecting and understanding ecological interactions,” said study co-author Forest Hayes, a doctoral student at CSU. 

While climate may play a significant role in depleting valuable resources that wildlife need, humans may be a more immediate threat, as water use by people increasingly endangers local biodiversity. “If we can’t offer species other than ourselves a chance, we’re just cooking our fates along similarly destructive paths,” concluded Dr. Berger.  

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By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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