Why a mountain goat is a better climber than you

mountain goat

Mountain goats can climb cliffs that are inaccessible to most other creatures. They accomplish that feat with the help of big muscles in their neck and shoulders.

Andrew Nicholson/Flickr (CC-BY-NC 2.0)


The mountain goat (Oreamnos americanus) might be the world’s best climber, able to scale near-vertical cliffs with an ease rivaled only by the world’s best human rock climbers — who have the advantage of safety equipment and opposable thumbs. Just how the goats manage such climbs has been somewhat of a mystery. Researchers suspected that the big muscles in the animals’ neck and shoulders and their low center of mass play a role, but no one had studied this, in part because of the difficulty of doing research in the goats’ home territory — remote mountainous regions of the United States and Canada.

Enter YouTube.

The internet is peppered with videos of these animals’ amazing feats, and biomechanics researchers Ryan Lewinson and Darren Stefanyshyn of the University of Calgary saw an opportunity: There was no need to go to the mountain goats when they could simply go to YouTube.

The researchers found a video (below) that they thought would work for analysis. In it, a young male mountain goat climbs a hill in the Canadian Rockies. They focused on a section in which the animal makes a series of galloping leaps, picking out nine frames to analyze. In the first six frames, the mountain goat pushes off the rock face, with its hindlimbs in contact with the hill surface. In the last three frames, the animal pulls itself up the hill with its forelimbs.

Scientists used this video to analyze how a mountain goat climbs. Nature Freak

During the push-off phase, the researchers found, the front legs stay close to the animal’s body while the back legs extend, creating a strong propulsive force upward. Then, the mountain goat uses those strong muscles in its neck and shoulders to propel its torso up the hill while keeping its elbows tucked in to keep the motion going straight up, the team reports in the December Zoology.

Now the question is, do all mountain goats climb this way? The researchers note that this was a study of just one animal, and a young one at that. Perhaps other mountain goats, either younger or older, climb in a different way. Plus, this was an opportunistic study, in which the researchers had no control over the setting.

“As a result,” they write, “it is not known if all mountain goats show the same movement pattern, or how this movement pattern changes in regards to the mountain slope the animal is climbing.”

In other words, they’ll need more than your YouTube videos to figure it out.

Sarah Zielinski is the Editor, Print at Science News Explores. She has a B.A. in biology from Cornell University and an M.A. in journalism from New York University. She writes about ecology, plants and animals.

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