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When goats and sheep compete for tasty mountain salt, goats almost always win


When it happens6:36When goats and sheep compete for the delicious salt of the mountain, almost always the goat wins

As climate change causes glaciers to melt, two high-climbing species are competing to see who will take all the nutritious salt deposits that remain after they exist.

Bighorn sheep and mountain goats both wanted a piece of these previously unavailable mineral deposits, and scientists tracked them to see who appeared at the top.

“I think they’re about the same size,” says wildlife ecologist Joel Berger of Colorado State University. About half the time, the sheep win, half the time, the goat wins. When it happens presenter Nil Köksal.

But in fact, in more than 100 such interactions, the goat takes up about 98% of the time.

“Sheep won a half or three of the interactions,” says Berger. “It shows that scientists are not always the most prudent or insightful, because I was wrong.”

Berger, a senior scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, is the lead author of a new study exploring the phenomenon of altitude. The findings were published this week in the journal Frontiers of Ecology and Evolution.

Mostly just ‘saber-clack’

Berger first happened upon these contests in the Rocky Mountains of Montana while he and doctoral student Forest Hayes were looking for grizzly bears.

They were looking through a small telescope, when they noticed a herd of goats walking across the rocky landscape toward what looked like a pile of dirt. About 400 meters away, they saw a flock of sheep going in the same direction.

As it turned out, that pile of dirt was a mineral – a salt mine filled with nutrients.

“They were licking the ground,” Berger said. “Some moved towards the others, and others then moved away. And it became clear after a few hours they were competing and each species wanted to lick it. from the same location,” Berger said.

A fluffy white goat with small straight horns was facing three brown sheep with large, curved horns on a large mound on a snow-covered mountain.
A mountain goat chases three large sheep looking to lick some glacial salt deposits. (Forest P. Hayes)

But these competitions, Berger said, are not exactly fierce battles. Goats can scare off sheep by waving around their fearsome horns, or just walk towards them aggressively, or lunge from time to time.

“It’s not like blood, guts, teeth and red nails,” Berger said.

“The bully waves his hand or her arm, whichever happens, and the kids run away because they don’t want to interact.”

Berger and his colleagues decided to delve deeper into the interactions between the two species, focusing their observations on three alpine sites: Mount Evans in Colorado; Glacier National Park in Montana, straddling the Canadian border; and Caw Ridge in Alberta.

They conducted their own fieldwork at two US sites and used data from Canadian wildlife ecologist
Frédéric Dulude-de Broin, who studied mountain goats for his master’s thesis and sometimes observed them interacting with bighorn sheep.

“It shows it’s the same pattern,” says Berger. “The goats clearly dominate in all cases.”

Complex consequences of climate change

The finding paints a complex picture of the effects of climate change on goats and sheep, Berger said. Glaciers are melting at a rapid rate and releasing new sources of essential nutrients.

“We could argue this is a positive thing because they are looking for or accessing these minerals,” he said.

On the other hand, he said, both organisms are increasingly deprived of the nutrients they need elsewhere, as both road construction projects and wildfires reduce access to mineral deposits. at lower altitudes.

“If that happens at higher altitudes, then the lower altitudes will get worse,” he said.

Furthermore, these mountainous salt flats are rare and widely dispersed, meaning that goats and sheep have to travel long distances just to reach them. And sometimes, in the case of the sheep, the journey may not be smooth.

A selfie of a man with long gray hair, a snow-covered mustache, and a beard.  He is wearing sunglasses and a menstrual cup.  Background is white snow and clear blue sky.
Joel Berger is the Barbara Cox Anthony University chair of wildlife conservation at Colorado State University and a senior scientist for the Wildlife Conservation Society. (Submitted by Joel Berger)

Tyler Jessen, a doctoral candidate at Victoria University who was not involved in the study, calls it “an interesting study and one that touches on important nuances in the study of change environment change.”

Jessen’s research focuses on how environmental changes affect animal populations, and he has previously Studying the decline of mountain goats in Canada.

He says his field of science often focuses on one species at a time, to reduce complexity. He credits Berger and his colleagues for discovering how environmental changes also affect interactions between species.

“The authors of this study … shed important light on how competition between species for limited resources can occur – a context that may intensify as the environment changes more,” he said in an email.

“Remarkably, the results of this study were made possible because the authors took the time to make observations in the field – a difficult, but important step to a more detailed understanding of the variability.” environment change.”

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