Wild animals that call mountains home


Picture of a capricorn up high on a mountain.

Lofty mountains that pierce the clouds and reach to dizzying heights may appear to us humans as coldly majestic, lonely, even forbidding.

Yet to a great variety of wildlife they constitute home.

Some of these animals would never think of descending to lower altitudes.

And to see them in a zoo, even if they could long survive such a humiliating experience, one could gain no realistic idea of their way of life among peaks and chasms.

Some of these animals are not very familiar to us, while the names of others have almost become household words.

For example, have you heard of the nyala, with its spiral horns measuring up to forty-four inches in length?

Picture of a nyala antelope.

It was discovered in 1908 at 9,000 feet in the mountains of South Abyssinia.

On the other hand, who has not heard of the chinchilla?

Picture of a chinchilla.

The mountain variety lives at an altitude of 17,000 feet.

Up at those heights, too, there are birds that soar high and make their nests in unapproachable places.

There are birds of great variety, such as hawks, eagles, the black duck, slender-billed chestnut-winged starlings and a host of others.

Can we take a closer look at some of these dwellers in lofty penthouses without risking life and limb?

Yes, we can, for others have clambered up to the giddy heights and recorded their firsthand

observations for our benefit.


The Mountain Gorilla


Picture of a mountain gorilla.

Let’s start with the mountain gorilla, the giant ape discovered in the higher levels of the West African forests in 1847.

This animal’s reported war-likeness, its tremendous strength and the remoteness of its habitation have stirred man’s imagination and posed something of a mystery, arousing popular and scientific interest.

The African Primate Expedition set out in February 1959 to clear up the mystery.

Gaining their objective involved roaming through the forests and climbing mist-shrouded mountains.

Finally, in January 1961 they were on the home ground of the mountain gorilla, whose total population is said to be between 5,000 and 15,000.

During the 466 hours they spent in full view of these mighty animals a great deal was learned and recorded.

All together, members of the expedition had opportunity to study them in 314 separate encounters. Imagine being approached to within fifteen feet by one of these huge beasts—with nothing to bar his nearer approach!

That was the experience of one member of the visiting group.

These big fellows rise early, about 6 a.m., and retire at about 6 p.m.

Breakfast lasts for perhaps a couple of hours, their massive bodies moving from snack to snack.

From about 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. they lounge around.

Again they resume the search for food—food in much greater variety than any zoo would be likely to provide.

A total of 100 food plants were collected in various study areas—by no means a monotonous diet!

The observers noted that these animals have a total of some twenty-two distinct utterances or vocalizations, eight of them occurring quite frequently.

There is the soft grumbling sound—sure sign of the contented ape.

A series of abrupt grunts serve to keep the group together.

A harsh scream may sound as if murder is being committed. It is most likely merely a quarrel with lots of bluff.

A high screech means some infant ape is afraid he is being left behind.

Mother will doubtless respond right away.

But what about the gorilla’s notorious chest-beating display?

For that you will need patience, for it happens infrequently.

But when it does get under way, you are in for a real show!

It starts with a series of hoots, following which the animal, hooting at a fast tempo, rises on its hind legs like a mountain of hair, throws some plant into the air, kicks up one leg and at the climax beats its massive chest with cupped hands several times.

Then he runs sideways, slapping and tearing at the vegetation, finally thumping the ground with heavy palm.

The chest beats have been recorded; his roars of high intensity are probably the most explosive sound in all the animal kingdom!

A closer look at these powerful brutes weighing up to six hundred pounds reveals that in sight, hearing and smell their powers are about the same as those of a human.

Almost always they move about on all fours.

The farthest any one of them was seen to walk erect was sixty feet.

Interestingly, too, during all the hours of observation, not once was a gorilla seen using any kind of tool.

The younger members of the group play a variety of games—King of the Mountain, Follow the Leader, and running, climbing, sliding and swinging games.

They lead relatively peaceful lives.

Seldom are they heard quarreling.

Sunbathing is one of their leading forms of relaxation.

They will stretch out on their backs, hairy chests exposed to the warm rays.

Whenever rain comes, a tree provides shelter, or they may just sit hunched over in the open, waiting patiently for the storm to pass.


The Mountain Camels


Picture of a vicuna and her cub.

Now, through the records of mountaineer naturalists, let us take a look at the mountain camels, in their own habitat, high up in the South American Andes, in the stony deserts or punas.

The vicuna is wild, greatly prized for his fur, while the llama (pronounced lyah′mah in Spanish) is domesticated, a genuine ship of the desert.

They look quite different from the animls we are used to calling “camel,” yet both are true camels.

The llama is primarily a beast of burden, but a unique burden-bearer, for he can carry heavy loads even in the ratified air of mountain heights, often below zero and amid battering winds and howling blizzards.

However, he will not accept one ounce more load than he wishes to carry.

Llamas grow fat and sleek up on those barren slopes, where not a blade of grass can be seen, and where only bare rock and sand appear.

But how do they survive?

Here is where their mountaineering ability comes into play!

They seek out delicious morsels (that is, to them) such as reindeer moss, lichen and cacti, getting them on incredibly precipitous pastures.

The llama has some special equipment, too, and he needs it, for some of the great hunters of the animal world stalk him—the mountain lion and the jaguar.

Soft, padded, almost claw-like toes permit him to adhere to impossibly steep surfaces as though he had suction cups for feet.

The feet themselves, very loosely jointed at the hocks, often appear dislocated as they adjust to every angle and crevice.

A common but amazing sight is a herd of llamas grazing on seemingly bare rock, so steep that even the native Indian cannot find a toehold!

Still another thrilling sight is provided when a lone llama is traversing bare ledges or walking across the glass-smooth ice of a glacier a thousand feet above some rushing torrent.

One misstep, it would seem, could plunge the animal down into an abysmal canyon.

The vicuna, on the other hand, is not herded.

It is noted for its wild, lightning-like movements and prodigious leaps.

Three miles above sea level they can dash at such speed that only their dust can be seen, and then stop dead in their tracks.

They can leap up fifteen feet, twist about in midair and, at the instant their feet touch ground, dash madly off in an entirely different direction.

An entire herd of fifty or more may be seen at times running around in circles, playing leapfrog, turning backflips or somersaults as if to advertise their freedom.

At the least sign of danger, they will vanish in a cloud of dust.

Apparently they have no realization of the dangers inherent in their lofty playgrounds however.

Often they are injured or killed by falls, in spite of the popular idea that they never make a misstep.
Interestingly, they seem to have a single-track mind.

Vicunas will return again and again to the same bedding spot, even when some of their number are killed nightly.

So all the hunter has to do, when he locates a bedding place, is wait.

He is sure of his quarry.

The vicuna will not leap over, push against or cross any barrier, however flimsy.

It might only be two fences of light string used by Indians to funnel the animals down to the narrow spoutlike end where they can be killed as they emerge.

They do not attempt to break through the light cord barrier!

Their valuable fur made the vicunas a special target for huntsmen.

A vicuna coat is so fine and light that a robe six feet square may be folded and pressed into a bundle measuring nine by fourteen inches, and not more than four inches thick—a bundle weighing less than four pounds.

Eventually the Peruvian and Bolivian governments had to pass strict laws in order to curb the wanton slaughter of these freedom-loving animals.


Other Intrepid Mountaineers


Picture of a mountain goat.

The scene shifts now to the mountains of America’s Northwest.

Here is the abode of the mountain goat—in reality an antelope.

His white beard waving serenely in the wind, he reminds onlookers of an old professor.

However, no professor could follow this most surefooted of animals.

Clad in warm underwear of wool three to four inches thick, he lives a tough, hard life above the timberline.

His overcoat is long and shaggy, also of pure wool.

But naturalists are not quite sure how, even with such equipment, he manages to survive the Arctic conditions of the northern Rockies.

At times this animal will shed wool so abundantly that Indians are able to rake up several bushels in an area of a few square yards.

This goat’s sureness of step is truly phenomenal.

Rarely will he proceed until he is sure of what lies ahead.

However, if a lofty trail peters out he does not panic.

He may back up until it is safe to turn, or he may rear up on hind legs, with thousands of feet of sheer emptiness below, press hard against the cliff, turn inward and around, dropping again on all fours as easily as you would step up on the curb.

But that is not the extent of his daring.

He may choose instead to defy the yawning chasm below, simply reaching up to grab a tiny rock shelf and pulling himself to a still higher level.

Like the llama, these mountain goats have their own special foot gear.

The sole of each toe is concave and acts as a suction cup.

The clefts between the two toes open toward the front so that when the animal is descending a smooth rocky slope its weight spreads the toes wider for firmer grip.

These animals are very curious about humans, who once in a while poke curiously into their mountain habitat.

And then there is the bighorn, also born into a world of soaring peaks.

Picture of bighorn sheep.

This animal is really a sheep, but a sheep without the traditional wool.

He, too, is agile and nimble of foot.

One old ram in the Sierra Diablo of West Texas was observed going down a near vertical fifty-foot cliff. Another made a leap that spanned nearly seventeen feet.

The bighorns move around mostly in flocks.

Mother animals watch gravely while lambs make merry, playing tag, follow the leader, jump the rock, run around pinnacles, and indulge in petty butting matches.

Another neighbor in this northern mountain area is the mountain beaver.

Picture of a mountain beaver.

This name is really a misnomer, for he is no true beaver.

He has no tail, and does not have the reputation of the real beaver for industriousness.

Why, his tunnel roof is often so thin that it collapses.

If the debris bothers him, he just scoops it up and shoves it out.

All winter he may be seen following his daily routine, for he is not a hibernating animal.

Finally, let’s look in on the hyrax.

Picture of two hyrax sleeping.


Tailless, about the size of a rabbit, this oddity is said to be akin to the elephant and the rhinoceros.

His dung is unique, for it contains the hyraceum used in elegant perfumes.

Less sophisticated and less mobile than some of his mountaineer neighbors, the hyrax lives in burrows slightly above freezing temperature.

He is equipped with a two-inch-thick brown fur coat.

His cousins live in the lowland savannas where it is warmer, so their coats are only half an inch thick.

So, wherever there are mountain heights all around the earth there are interesting animals that call those mountains home.

Inaccessibility to these animals means mainly safety from human predators.

There are large ones and small ones.

They include great variety: the powerful gorilla, the laughably free vicuna, the dignified mountain goat, the stolid pack-bearing llama and the scurrying beaver of the mountains.

If you ever see one of these in a zoo, just picture in your mind the clean, airy world of peaks and chasms that they call home.