The other day I made a quiz on sporcle, which consisted of pictures of hoofed mammals. The point of the quiz was to name the animal based on a picture of it. So making the quiz involved looking up pictures of numerous ungulates, one of the funniest looking being the mountain goat. I have always assumed that bighorn sheep and mountain goats were either the same thing or at least similar looking. I couldn’t have been more wrong! Here are pictures of a bighorn sheep and a mountain goat:

Two very different animals: the mountain goat (left) and bighorn sheep (right). Left Image By Darklich14 – Own work, CC BY 3.0. Right image By Jwanamaker – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

See? They look nothing alike. But my ignorance inspired me to blog about the mountain goat today, so that at least is a good thing. Mountain goats live in mountains (what a surprise!), primarily the Rockies and Cascade ranges. These goats are wonderfully adapted to the harsh alpine climate; they have thick white coats to keep them warm and camouflage them in the snow, as well as special feet to help the goats traverse the steep slopes of their homes. The goat’s hooves are cloven, meaning they can spread apart as needed, and there are inner pads on each foot to help the goat grip rocks. The hooves also have sharp claws at the tips that further prevent slipping.

Mountain goats are designed to traverse crazy landscapes like this one. Image By Robert ShepherdGravitydude99 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Mountain goats prefer areas where there are steep slopes, so that they can escape predators. In the winter, mountain goats move to lower elevations, while in the summer they tend to stay at high heights. Which makes sense, because I’m pretty sure mountain tops get freakishly cold in the winter, and no animal would want to be hanging out then. In spring, the goats tend to congregate around salt licks, which are very important for goat nutrition. Most herbivores have the same nutritional challenge: finding enough minerals. Plants are generally low in most minerals, and those that they do have are usually locked up in compounds that animals can’t digest. So herbivores have a solution: they lick salty rocks to get the nutrients they need. Which means herbivores have a crazy appetite for salt, and that’s why you’ll see moose and deer on roads, especially during the winter when salt is spread everywhere.

Anyway, back to goats. Both males and females have horns in this species, and they do not shed them. The horns grow throughout the goat’s life, with growth rings marking each year. Which makes the age of a mountain goat really easy to tell, like a tree. Except you don’t have to cut the horn off to check. I’m sure the goats appreciate that. Mountain goats usually live 12-15 years in the wild, with their lifespan being limited by their teeth. The goat’s teeth are subjected to quite a bit of damage, as their diet requires a lot of grinding. Once the teeth wear down, the goats can’t eat anymore, and if you can’t eat it’s pretty hard to live.

Mountain goats are somewhat social; they live in large herds in the winter but either split into smaller groups or are solitary in the summer. During the breeding season males compete for females by standing side by side and trying to gore each other with their horns. Most of the time serious injuries are prevented by the goat’s thick skin, but fatalities can occur. Gestation is about 5 to 6 months, and kids are mobile within hours of birth. They are weaned by 3 months, but stay with their mom until they are about a year old. I can’t blame them, really. Learning to navigate the tricky slopes of the Rocky Mountains would probably take at least a year.

I think mountain goats are pretty awesome animals. Not only do they look like old men, but they are crazy agile on some of the most uncertain terrain in the world. Google pictures of mountain goats, and you’ll see what I mean. One of my new goals is to go photograph a mountain goat being awesome. It shouldn’t be too hard, because they’re awesome all the time!