Class: Mammalia (Mammals)
Height: tallest—musk ox Ovibos moschatus, up to 4.5 feet (1.3 meters) at the shoulder; smallest—central Chinese goral Naemorhedus goral arnouxianus, up to 32 inches (80 centimeters)
Length: longest—takin Budorcas taxicolor, up to 7.3 feet (2.2 meters); shortest—goral, up to 4.2 feet (130 centimeters)
Weight: heaviest—muskox, up to 836 pounds (380 kilograms); lightest—goral, up to 92 pounds (42 kilograms)
Life span: 6 to 24 years, depending on species
Gestation: 5 to 9 months, depending on species
Number of young at birth: usually 1, sometimes 2, rarely 3
Age of maturity: 2 to 14 years, depending on species
Conservation status: Peninsular bighorn sheep Ovis canadensis cremnobates and walia ibex Capra walie are at critical risk; eight other species are endangered.
The musk ox wins the prize for the longest hair in the Animal Kingdom (apart from humans!). Its shaggy guard hairs can reach nearly 2 feet (60 centimeters) in length.
• No kidding: When female goats (called does) give birth to babies, called kids, the process is called "kidding."
• When the snow is too deep, the chamois Rupicapra sp. has been known to survive for up to two weeks without food.
• Chinese bharals Pseudois nayaur live in the highest part of the world, the Himalayan region, at elevations up to 19,000 feet (5,800 meters). That's 3.5 miles (5.6 kilometers) straight up!
Listen to a sheep!
Mammals: Goat & Sheep
Living on the edge
Wild goats and sheep may not seem too exciting at first glance. But wait until you get to know them better: some wild goats can climb trees, and some goats and sheep can walk along a ledge not much wider than a tightrope! With their amazing climbing talent, spectacular spiraling horns, and ability to live in some of the world's steepest, most forbidding habitats, they are worthy of our attention and appreciation.
Sheep or goat?
How can you tell if you're looking at a goat or a sheep? If a male has the familiar beard, or goatee, then he's probably a goat; male sheep don't have beards. Another hint is the horns: a male sheep's horns usually curl and a goat's are straight. But, of course, there are exceptions. Male Barbary sheep Ammotragus lervia look like a mixture of both: they have beards and curled horns! And the scientific name for Himalayan tahrs—Hemitragus jemlahicus—means "something like a goat."
Surefooted sheep and goats walk on two toes—the third and fourth—on each foot. Some have two or more vestigial toes called dewclaws. The bottoms of their feet are very soft. This gives them the ability to climb on rocks with a secure foothold. Markhors Capra falconeri are known for their tree-climbing ability, and those living at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park have even been seen walking along the top of a chainlink fence, which is only a half-inch (1.2 centimeters) wide! Ibex Capra sp. and Barbary sheep can jump over 6 feet (1.8 meters) straight up from a standing position.
Horns—the biggest size wins
Both male and female goats and sheep have horns, but those of the males are much larger. The horns are made of keratin, like our fingernails, and they are permanent, growing throughout the animal's lifetime. A growth ring is deposited each winter. By counting those rings, it's possible to tell the animal's age. In contrast, deer antlers are made of bone and are shed and regrown every year.
Rams and bucks (male sheep and goats) use their horns in head-butting clashes that get more intense during the breeding season, in the fall for most species. Younger rams and bucks are eager to try their skills and may pick more fights, but robust older males with their bigger and stronger horns can win fairly quickly. The winner usually breeds with all the females and fathers the young. The rest of the males return to bachelor herds or stay by themselves until the next breeding season. Then the battles resume, and they get another chance to beat the former winner.
Unfortunately, some bucks, including the endangered markhor and some of the wild sheep, are still highly prized as trophy animals. Hunters often pay thousands of dollars to pursue and kill them for their horns.
Does and ewes (adult female goats and sheep) live in groups (herds and flocks). Most females give birth to a single kid (baby goat) or lamb (baby sheep) in the spring. Before giving birth, a doe or ewe looks for a quiet and safe location. Once the baby is strong enough to follow its mother, the pair joins other mothers and babies. The youngsters become independent quickly. An ibex kid can jump on its first day of life, and it joins kid groups by the fourth week. Even at an early age, lambs and kids are agile and alert. Although they are weaned by four to six months of age, they remain with their mothers for at least a year.
Cud is good
All goats and sheep are primarily grazers and ruminants—cud chewers, that is. A four-chambered stomach contains fermenting bacteria and protozoans that help break down the tough grasses and other plants these animals eat. At both the San Diego Zoo and the Safari Park, the sheep and goats are offered Bermuda grass, alfalfa and alfalfa pellets, and acacia browse. While at rest, the animals bring food back up from the first stomach chamber and chew it, grinding it with their cheek teeth. Then they swallow their food a second time for more thorough digestion.
Help for bighorn sheep in San Diego County
There are just 600 Peninsular bighorn sheep Ovis canadensis cremnobates left in the United States, down from about 1,100 animals in the 1970s. Their current range is from the San Jacinto Mountains near Palm Springs, California, to the United States-Mexico border. Disease, drought, mountain lions, and habitat loss may all threaten these sheep. The bighorns face the challenge of living near some of the fastest-growing cities in the United States, where real estate prices are soaring and there are more demands for building, recreation, mining, and other human activities.
After Peninsular bighorn sheep were listed as endangered, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put together a team of bighorn sheep experts and asked them to create a plan for the sheep's recovery. The plan, completed in 2000, calls for a number of actions, including increased habitat protection and restoration, reduction of human impact, and development of public education programs.
People have hunted wild goats and sheep for their hides and meat for many thousands of years. Ice Age cave drawings found in Europe depict what appear to be ibex. Over time, humans developed an association with goats and sheep and began domesticating them some 8,000 to 10,000 years ago in southwest Asia and in the Middle East. There are now some 210 breeds of domesticated goats and more than 200 breeds of domestic sheep, many bred to provide milk, fibers such as cashmere, mohair, and wool, and meat. In fact, goat meat is eaten by more people worldwide than any other kind of meat.
When you look at wild goats and sheep at the Zoo or Safari Park, you are seeing a living link to a remote past, as well as a vital part of our world today. Take time to admire their impressive stature and those amazing horns, and to appreciate their agility and toughness. They represent an important but often overlooked component of wild habitats.