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Snow offers mountain goats relief from biting insects

A recent study has shed light on the unexpected consequences of climate change on mountain goats. The loss of summer snow patches may severely impact these high-altitude dwellers. 

Importance of snow patches

The research was conducted by Forest Hayes and Joel Berger in Glacier National Park. Through non-invasive observation methods, the experts found that the behavior of mountain goats is strongly affected by the presence of snow

The results indicate that when mountain goats seek out snow patches, they’re not just cooling off but also escaping the torment of biting insects.

Focus of the study

“Despite the close association between species distributions and elements of climate, little is known about the near-term responses of chionophiles (i.e. organisms reliant on cold wintery conditions) to rapidly warming temperatures especially given the accentuated rates in mountainous and high-latitude environments,” wrote the study authors. 

“While direct threats from humans (e.g. habitat loss, overhunting, and nonnative species) are the principal risk for many species, warming temperatures are likely the paramount challenge for cold-adapted organisms.” 

“Individual animals feel the immediacy of these changes, wherein behavioral and physiological mechanisms may play fundamental roles in capacities to adjust.”

Insect harassment 

Utilizing telephoto lenses to film the animals, the researchers meticulously measured the goats’ respiration rates and the frequency of ear-flicks as indicators of stress and insect disturbance.

With the park having lost a staggering 85 percent of its glaciers since 1850, the implications of the study are dire. 

The researchers’ initial theory was that the goats used snow patches primarily for heat relief. However, the data revealed a significant correlation between ear-flicking – a sign of insect irritation – and the proximity of snow.

Potentially fatal consequences 

The concern is not just one of discomfort. For wildlife, insect harassment can have fatal consequences. A heavy tick infestation, for instance, has been known to kill moose calves. 

While the exact impact on mountain goats is less documented, the study suggests that without the respite provided by snow patches, mountain goats could face increased risks, including the potential for local extinction.

Reshaping ecosystems 

This research brings to light yet another dimension of how climate change is reshaping ecosystems. Cold-adapted species like the mountain goat use summer snow for various needs, including as a means of travel, a source of water, and importantly, a refuge from parasites and insects. 

As these snow patches become increasingly scarce, the mountain goats – and potentially other species – may struggle to adapt quickly enough, with potentially devastating outcomes for their populations.

The study highlights the urgency of addressing climate change and its cascading effects on biodiversity. The case of the mountain goats in Glacier National Park is an unsettling example of how even the most seemingly resilient species are vulnerable to the rapid environmental changes happening around the globe.

Study implications for mountain goats

“Despite the strong associations between many taxa and cold environs, there remains great uncertainty about the biological benefits, if any, of using persistent snow during summer months,” wrote the study authors.

“Contrary to the prevalent hypothesis that persistent snow provides thermal relief for cold-adapted species, we demonstrated that the use of snow patches facilitates insect avoidance and not thermoregulatory gains.”

“While the duration and spatial extent of snow decline globally as the climate warms, its diminishing availability is likely to have substantive impacts on populations given a general pattern of associations between insects and temperatures at high elevations and latitudes.”

More about mountain goats

Mountain goats stand as a symbol of the remote mountain landscapes of North America. Contrary to what their name suggests, they are not true goats but belong to their own distinct genus ‘Oreamnos’. These sturdy animals exhibit a remarkable blend of strength, agility, and adaptation, enabling them to navigate the steep and rocky terrains they call home.

Physical characteristics of mountain goats

Mountain goats boast a set of specialized features that equip them for life at high elevations. They have a dense woolly undercoat and an outer layer of longer guard hairs, which protect them from the harsh mountain climate. Their hooves have a concave shape and rubber-like soles for grip, and the tips of their hooves can spread apart to improve balance.

Social and behavioral adaptations

Socially, mountain goats are intriguing. Females, or nannies, often stay in groups with their young, called kids, while adult males, or billies, tend to be more solitary. They have a hierarchy system that is typically established through non-violent means, such as staring contests and positioning. During mating season, billies will display their dominance through impressive bouts of headbutting.

Diet and foraging

These animals are herbivores, and their diet consists mostly of grasses, herbs, sedges, ferns, moss, lichen, and twigs. They have adapted to a low-salt diet and can obtain necessary minerals from their plant-based diet, which they must often travel great distances to find.

Reproduction and lifecycle

The reproductive cycle of the mountain goat is closely attuned to the seasons. Mating occurs in the fall, and after a gestation period of about six months, nannies give birth to one or two kids in the spring. Kids are agile from birth and can follow their mothers over rugged terrain within days.

Conservation status of mountain goats

Mountain goats are classified as least concern by the IUCN, but they are not without their challenges. They face threats from habitat encroachment, hunting, and the impacts of climate change. Conservation efforts are critical in ensuring these majestic creatures continue to thrive in their high-altitude habitats.

In summary, mountain goats are an emblem of the wild, untamed peaks of North America. Their survival and proliferation in such hostile environments are a testament to the remarkable adaptability of wildlife. As stewards of the natural world, it is our responsibility to protect these unique animals and the awe-inspiring landscapes they inhabit.

The study is published in the journal PNAS Nexus

Video credit: Forest P. Hayes

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