Fighting may be explained by the climate crisis, as melting ice fuels interspecies competition, with goats nearly always winning.
|At a high-elevation snow patch in Glacier National Park, a mountain goat approaches three bighorn rams. Forest P Hayes Photograph
The agile climber with steak-knife-like horns is in one corner. The largest wild sheep in America lives in the other. Scientists have discovered a battle for resources uncovered by the region's vanishing glaciers in the mountains of the United States' West.
Mountain goats and bighorn sheep have been observed competing for mineral deposits among the rocks at elevations of up to 14,000 feet in study sites spanning a 1,500-mile span of the Rocky Mountains.
These contests, which have never been detailed before, show that two of the United States' largest native mammals are engaged in a struggle that may be influenced by the climate crisis, as the mountains' snow and ice melt. According to the new study, the conflict between such species "may be reflective of climate degradation coupled with the changing nature of coveted resources."
The number of skirmishes between the two ungulate species, with the mountain goats appearing to have the upper hand or hoof, astounded Joel Berger, lead author of the study and senior scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society and Colorado State University. The goats won 98 percent of the battles observed, proving that they are the superior mountain brawler.
"They're the badasses of the mountains," Berger says. "They have saber-like horns; they are more bold and aggressive." The goats simply have a high win rate."
When goats and sheep are near each other, they usually avoid fighting, but when conflict does arise around clumps of minerals, the goats usually chase the sheep away so that they can enjoy the nutrients in peace.
Bighorn sheep are similar in size to mountain goats and have long, curved horns that resemble Princess Leia's hairstyle. However, due to their assertiveness and razor-sharp horns, goats are the more feared combatant—a mountain goat gored a grizzly bear to death in Canada last year, while a hiker was killed by a goat in Olympic National Park in 2010.
Over the last century, about 300 glaciers have vanished from the Rocky Mountains as global warming has melted the region's snow and ice. Scientists say it is now "inevitable" that places like Glacier National Park will lose all of their major ice formations within the next few decades.
This upheaval is causing ecosystem disruption and raising concerns for communities in the United States West that rely on water from rivers and streams fed by melting glaciers. The melt is also exposing salt and potassium deposits, which goats and sheep value because they need to lick these mineral deposits to gain vital nutrients.
These animals, which can move quickly up rocky inclines, can now venture higher into the mountains for these resources as the ice melts. This could lead to more of these irate interactions, though it's unclear whether the number of conflicts is increasing because no previous research has been done on the subject.
"These areas were covered in ice and snow not long ago." "They've now opened up, and there's some contention over access," Berger says. "No one of these species wants direct conflict, but that's what's happening."
According to Berger, global warming is increasing the risk of conflict in other parts of the world, particularly among animals such as rhinoceroses and elephants as they try to access diminishing water supplies. Some humans are also reacting to these changes with apprehension, with the United States and Russia viewing the melting of the Arctic as a military threat.
"We know that climate change is reshaping all of our futures, whether we're dealing with humans or nonhuman mammals," Berger says.