Mountain Goats: the unseen spectacle of nature

You are hiking atop a gargantuan North American mountain on a cloudy day. The temperatures are in the single digits and the wind chill isn’t helping. You have come to a beautiful, picturesque opening of the trees, close to the mountain’s apex. Your jaw drops at the sight of the miles of nature you can see in all directions. Suddenly, a minuscule animal noise is uttered and carries across the land below. You feel silly for even looking, but you suspect that the animal noise came from the side of the cliff. Looking down below, your suspicions are confirmed when you see a mountain goat clinging on the the side of a seventy degree angled mountain with a two hundred foot drop in an awe inspiring and gravity defying feat of nature. Seemingly about to die at the smallest movement, the mountain goat is nevertheless blissfully joyful and unaware, licking salt deposits off the side of the ridge.

Webster defines “mountain goat” as a “ruminant mammal of mountainous northwestern North America that has a thick yellowish-white coat and slightly curved horns and resembles a goat.” To the naive observer, the characteristics of the mountain goat seems like a straightforward concept to define. But if you peer into the endless abyss of mountain goat wonder, you’ll discover their bizarre habits that defy physics, gravity, and behavioral patterns of most mammals.

The phenomenon in question is the afermorementioned death defying salt lick stunts. Pictures of the goats surfaced on the internet around 2010, which subsequently led to them getting picked up by major news sites for the public to laugh and guffaw at. It then got translated in the language of memes with the common caption being “I crave that mineral.” Nevertheless, the breathtaking  antic leaves us with questions. Why do they take the risk solely for some salt? How are their hooves able to latch onto sides of mountains? Is this phenomenon exclusive to just goats? To answer these questions, we’ll have to consult the experts.

According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, mountain goats travel up to “18 miles” to go to a mineral lick in the peak summer months between “June 1st- August 15th.” The minerals in question were analyzed by the lab, consists  of “mostly sodium” but also “calcium, potassium, and sulphate.” This is in order to “provide essential elements that mountain goats need for bone growth, muscle growth, and other growth and development later in the year.”

Clearly, the mountain goats have biological instincts that badger them to seek out and ransack salt deposits, but it is yet to be explained how the goat’s disregard for gravity is even possible. According to the Woodland Park Zoo, mountain goats are able to make the tumultuous climbs because of their hooves. They have “inner pads that provide traction and cloven hooves that can spread apart.” And the “tips of their feet have sharp dewclaws that keep them from slipping.” with “powerful shoulder and neck muscles that help propel them up steep slopes.”

Even with hearing rationale from the experts,  it still doesn’t explain why. Why do these mountain goats risk their lives in order to get the necessary salt and minerals from mountain cliffs when they could easily go to a nearby salt deposit that is not directly cliffside, or even lick the urine of other animals to ingest the same minerals? The obvious answer is that mountain goats are unintelligent creatures who don’t understand the consequences of their actions. However,  according to National Geographic, goats are specifically susceptible to terror and dangerous situations. Goats commonly experience something called “Myotonia congenita” when they encounter predators, in which the goat actually faints of fear and plays dead to avoid and outsmart predators. However, the response isn’t acting; the chemicals in the bloodstream that induce myotonia congenita is a response to genuine panic the goat is experiencing. So why don’t they faint while on the sides of cliff? A certainly dangerous situation where goats are known to fall and die? Something doesn’t make sense here.

The ECHO staff was unsatisfied with these loose ends, so we decided to go to the source directly and find out. We paid a visit to the Hux Family Farm Petting Zoo in Durham where we spoke directly with a goat to figure out why the risk of death is worth it for his kind to devour the precious salt and minerals off a mountain. The goats response? “Baaaa baaaaa baaaaaaa.”


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