The ibex goat is a large mountain goat-like herbivore that lives in the highest peaks of the European Alps. They use their pincer-like hooves and impressive agility to climb even the steepest cliffs, thus avoiding most predators.
The Cingino Dam, located in the Piedmont region of Italy, is one of many in Europe. The dam has recently become a tourist attraction after photos of ibex goats climbing the vertical dam were posted on the internet.
Somehow, the ibex goats are able to cling to any rock that protrudes. This allows them to conquer the 50-meter-high wall and access the mineral they so desperately crave, which is salt.
Diets for herbivores like ibex goats lack salt, so they need it to function properly. Without salt, the bones of ibex goats are not strong enough, their nervous system and muscles will not function properly.
A precious source of salt that only ibex goats can access is found on dam walls such as that of the Cingino Dam. Ettringite, also known as Candlot salt, is a particularly valuable nutrient for ibex goats.
Similar images of ibex goats are also observed in other Italian dams, such as the Barbellino, a 65-meter-high dam in Lombardy, or the Lago della Rossa, a 31-meter-tall structure in Piedmont.
Interestingly, while the ibex goat is a species praised for its ability to climb to dizzying heights in search of salt, not all ibex goats are up to the challenge. For example, large males have not been observed to engage in this type of behavior, possibly because their large body mass (up to 100 kg) and large horns make it more difficult for them to balance. Meanwhile, females and their offspring are most often seen on dams.
How can ibex goats conquer such steep dams? Scientists have found that the cause is all in their hooves.
The ibex goat’s claws are made up of two toes that move independently of each other. The bottom of each toe is made with a strong outer and a soft inner that allows the ibex goat to flex, gripping extremely narrow surfaces.
Even if they lose their balance and slip, ibex goats somehow manage to get hold of the first overhanging rock they encounter on their way down, and they simply keep climbing.
In the nineteenth century, due to overhunting for meat and the supposed medicinal properties of ibex horns, the population of ibex goats had dwindled to about 100 creatures in the western Alps. Thankfully conservation efforts and the establishment of Gran Paradiso National Park have helped bring the ibex back from the brink of extinction. Today, an estimated 50,000 creatures exist spread out across the Alps.