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High up in the mountains, goats and sheep faced off over salt. Guess who won

A female mountain goat in an alpine meadow in Montana's Glacier National Park. When goats competed with sheep for salt in the park, the goats won almost unanimously.
Forest P. Hayes
A female mountain goat in an alpine meadow in Montana's Glacier National Park. When goats competed with sheep for salt in the park, the goats won almost unanimously.

Goats ram! Sheep scram!

That's pretty much the four-word summation of a new study looking at what happens when goats and sheep compete for salt licks – naturally occurring deposits of salt – above the tree line in Montana.

Since this blog is called "Goats and Soda," we wanted to know more so we interviewed study co-author Joel Berger, a professor at Colorado State University and a senior scientist for the Wildlife Conservation Society.

(And if you're curious how we came up with this blog name, here's the story. Of if you're not inclined to click on embedded links, here's a synopsis: Goats are an integral part of life around the world and especially in the lower resource countries we cover, where having even a few goats can provide food for a family, either from milk or meat. Plus like journalists, goats are very curious animals).

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What was the inspiration for your study?

Forest Hayes, a Ph.D. student of mine [and co-author of the study] and I were in Montana looking for grizzly bears through spotting scopes, and we kept seeing goats and then sheep.

And you wondered ...

Why are they above the tree line, in areas where there's just no food? This was in May [2019], the remnant of winter snow is just melting out, it's too high for any plant growth yet because temperatures are still pretty frigid.

So we kept noticing goats and sheep in different places but every once in a while they were coming together at the same few spots – which were very patchily distributed mineral licks.

And they were after the salt in those mineral licks — which as you note would have previously been covered by glacial ice that's now melting due to earth's warming temperatures?

It's salt.

How did they know they'd find salt above tree line, where they typically don't hang out?

Darned, that's a really good question. I don't know that anybody has looked at how these hoofed mammals know how to detect [salt]. I know in desert systems, like the Gobi desert, they can smell rainfall and know how to navigate and go to the rain.

You observed some ... interactions ... as the goats and sheep competed for the salt?

Over 106 interactions. The sheep won 2, everything else was goats, goats, goats.

As a goat admirer, I can't say I'm surprised. We've reported on many studies that show how smart goats are. But you say you were surprised?

If everything else is equal, I was expecting half [of the interactions] to be won by sheep and half by goats because they're similar in size.

But you made an interesting point you would have expected goats.

It's armchair quarterbacking but now, oh yeah, it makes sense – goats don't have a lot of behavioral signaling, they kind of go into aggression pretty fast. Sheep have a lot of postures to communicate. So what's a goat going to do – lower its head and rush at you.

How did the sheep eke out two wins?

They just refused to leave and took a couple steps to the goats and the goats wanted no part of it.

A mountain goat moves toward three bighorn rams near a snow patch in Glacier National Park. The goat eventually moved the rams out of the way.
/ Forest P. Hayes
Forest P. Hayes
A mountain goat moves toward three bighorn rams near a snow patch in Glacier National Park. The goat eventually moved the rams out of the way.

And the lessons learned ...

I think it adds a dimension about how species in the wild may be responding as we move into the future – whether it's humans mucking up the environment directly by road building or groundwater depletion or glacial retreating. As resources like minerals, shade and snow patches become more patchy, if the resources are really important to these animals, there's going to be conflict.

But we don't know exactly how it will play out?

We don't know because nobody's every studied this before.

Might there be ramifications for goats that people raise?

That's a really good question. There probably are ramifications for waterholes in deserts in Asia or Africa. But we [already] know goats can be aggressive.

Which would mean goats will continue to survive and thrive and play a role in helping humans with their milk and meat.

Goats are at the root of how humanity has survived for thousands and thousands of years.

But maybe your findings aren't such good news for sheep.

It could be serious for sheep if nonbiological resources such as minerals, snow patches and waterholes [diminish].

Here's a perhaps weird question: Any lessons for humans?

That's not a weird question at all. Goats and sheep are mammalian brethren. They have combat in places with patchy resources. What do we think is going to happen with oil and gas in the Arctic? Russia has fortified or built at least 18 new military bases in the last 10 years in areas where there's permafrost or glacial ice. We in Alaska are certainly monitoring and aware of that situation.

I have to ask about another weird thing – in an interview with the Washington Post about your study, you mention that goats are interested in ... human pee?

It's a peer-reviewed legitimate science study we did. Basically people would pee on trails, and the goats would leave the cliffs and come running down at times to suck up the urine. That's how salt deprived they are.

As a goat lover, can I ask if you admire goats?

For sure. I love the whole lineage of goats and ancestral goat antelopes. They're just amazing, they can run really fast, climb mountains. I love the whole lineage that involves goats. They radiated out.

Ibex go from Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia into Egypt all the way to Siberia. And then over to Spain. They're remarkably successful.

So are goats the GOAT (greatest of all time)?

They are to me!

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marc Silver
Marc Silver, who edits NPR's global health blog, has been a reporter and editor for the Baltimore Jewish Times, U.S. News & World Report and National Geographic. He is the author of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) During Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond and co-author, with his daughter, Maya Silver, of My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks: Real-Life Advice From Real-Life Teens. The NPR story he co-wrote with Rebecca Davis and Viola Kosome -- 'No Sex For Fish' — won a Sigma Delta Chi award for online reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists.