Goats and sheep fight in the Rocky Mountains. Blame melting glaciers

This story originally appeared in The Guardian and is part of climatic table collaboration.

In one corner is the agile climber with horns like steak knives. On the other is America’s largest wild sheep. They are locked in one-sided combat in the mountains of the American West, scientists have discovered, in a battle for resources uncovered by the region’s disappearing glaciers.

At study sites along a 1,500-mile stretch of the Rocky Mountains, scientists have documented mountain goats and bighorn sheep competing for mineral deposits among rocks, at elevations up to 14,000 feet.

These contests, never before described in detail, show that two of the largest native mammals in the US are locked in a struggle that may be influenced by the climate crisis, as mountain snow and ice rapidly decline. . Conflict between such species “may be a reflection of climate degradation coupled with the changing nature of coveted resources,” the new study says.

Joel Berger, the lead author of the research and a senior scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society and Colorado State University, says he was “shocked” to see the number of skirmishes between the two ungulate species, with ibex they seem to have the advantage. or hoof Of the battles observed, the goats were successful 98 percent of the time, clearly making them the best mountain fighters.

“They’re the tough guys from the mountains,” says Berger. “They have these horns like sabers; they are bolder, more aggressive. Goats have a very high win rate.”

Goats and sheep usually avoid battle when they are close to each other, but when a conflict arises over groups of minerals, the goats often chase the sheep away to enjoy the nutrients in peace.

Bighorn sheep are about the same size as mountain goats and sport long, curved horns that resemble Princess Leia’s hairstyle. But goats are the most feared combatant because of their assertiveness and razor-sharp horns: a ibex killed a grizzly bear in Canada last year, while in a separate, extremely rare incident, a hiker was killed by a goat. in Olympic National Park in 2010.

About 300 glaciers have disappeared from the Rocky Mountains over the last century as global warming has removed snow and ice from the region. Scientists have said it is now “inevitable” that places like the famed Glacier National Park will lose all of their major ice formations in the coming decades.

This upheaval is disrupting ecosystems and raising concern for communities in the western US that depend on water that comes from rivers and streams fed by melting glaciers. The melt is also uncovering deposits of salt and potassium that are prized by goats and sheep, who need to lick up these mineral deposits for crucial nutrients.

These animals, capable of skillfully moving up rocky slopes, can now venture higher into the mountains in search of these resources as the ice retreats. This may be leading to more of these angry interactions, although it is not clear if the conflicts are increasing in number as no previous work has been done on the subject.

“Not long ago these areas were covered in ice and snow. Now they have been opened up and there is some conflict over access,” says Berger. “Direct conflict is not something that any of these species want, but this is what is happening.”

Berger says global warming is increasing the risk of conflict in other parts of the world, between creatures like rhinos and elephants as they try to access dwindling water supplies. Some humans are also reacting to these changes with adversity in mind, with the US and Russia seeing the melting of the Arctic as a military threat.

“Whether we’re dealing with humans or non-human mammals, we know that climate change is reshaping all of our futures,” says Berger.

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