Wild Profile: Meet the mountain goat

A baby mountain goat standing against a snowy background By Yobab/Shutterstock

The first thing you should know about the mountain goat? It’s not actually a “true” goat—just as a mountain lion isn’t a lion, and a sea horse is definitely not a horse. Mountain goats are only relatives of barnyard and petting zoo domestic goats; experts believe that they shared a common ancestor at one point. The second thing you should know about these cloven hoofed mammals? If you see one, you’re probably somewhere very, very high. Mountain goats stick to, well, mountains, from the Rockies to Alaska. They evolved to survive in chilly, icy, alpine and subalpine conditions.

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Mountain goats spend their lives navigating cold, treacherous terrain, but they’re built for the job. They have specialized hooves, with a rubbery, elastic sole—they can spread their toes—suited to climbing and gripping; they can also safely jump about 12 feet in one bound. To stay warm, they grow a doubly-thick fur coat, consisting of a short, inner layer covered by a longer, shaggy, outer layer. This outer coat is made up of hollow “guard” hairs, which trap heat and protect the inner coat from rain and snow. (Most furred mammals have guard hairs; a mountain goat’s are particularly coarse. This is what gives them such a raggedy, bearded appearance.)

Mountain goats use their sharp, dagger-like horns when fighting. Biologists call the species “conflict prone”—in other words, they like to scrap. Research suggests that they get into three or four fights per hour. The fighting likely stems in part from scarce food resources. At such high altitudes, vegetation—grasses, ferns, moss—can be tough to find. Battling mountain goats can fight dirty enough to knock each other down the mountain, but, as with lots of species, other threats—predators or shrinking habitat and a warming climate—are probably more responsible for mountain goat mortality.

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