The Alpine chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra, Linnaeus 1758) is a mammal belonging to the Bovidae family.
From a systematic point of view, it belongs to the Eukaryota Domain, Animalia Kingdom, Sub-Kingdom Eumetazoa, Superphylum Deuterostomia, Phylum Chordata, Subphylum Vertebrata, Infraphylum Gnathostomata, Superclass Tetrapoda, Class Mammalia, Subclass Theria, Infraclasse Order, Eutheria, Super-class Order Sheep, Bovidae family, Caprinae subfamily and therefore to the genus Rupicapra and to the species R. rupicapra.
There are some subspecies of this species, although the taxonomic validity of these subspecies is under discussion:
– Rupicapra rupicapra rupicapra (Linnaeus, 1758), widespread in the Alpine arc;
– Rupicapra rupicapra cartusiana, present on the Chartreuse Prealps;
– Rupicapra rupicapra tatrica, present on the Tatra Mountains;
– Rupicapra rupicapra carpatica, widespread in the Carpathians;
– Rupicapra rupicapra balcanica, widespread in the Balkan Peninsula;
– Rupicapra rupicapra caucasica, widespread in the Caucasus plateau;
– Rupicapra rupicapra asiatica, widespread in Asia Minor.
Geographical Distribution and Habitat –
There are two species of Alpine chamois in Europe, which are: Rupicapra rupicapra and Rupicapra pyrenaica.
Alpine chamois is present on all the highest mountain groups in southern Europe and Asia Minor.
Its diffusion area extends to the French Alps, Italian Alps, Swiss Alps, Austrian Alps, Bavarian Alps, Liechtenstein, Jura Mountains, Slovenia and the Balkans. Furthermore, following reintroductions, it is present in the Black Forest, in the Vosges and since 1978 also in the Cantal del Massif Central France. In the north it reaches the High Tatras and in the early twentieth century it was introduced to New Zealand.
In Italy this species is widespread on the mountain slopes of the Alps, with the greatest presence of individuals in the provinces of Trento, Bolzano and Verona (Prealpi Veronesi) and in Piedmont, in whose territories 62% of Italian alpine chamois are currently concentrated.
The southern limit of the Alpine chamois in Italy is represented by the Province of Imperia and there is a presence of chamois also in the adjacent Province of Savona in the area from Monte Galero, today the new southern limit of distribution, even if the presence is demonstrated only in a seasonal way and the number of subjects present is still too low to withstand any adverse event. Since 1994 a small group of chamois has settled in the Trieste Karst probably following an illegal entry.
Rupicapra rupicapra is a ungulate species which, due to its shape and body size and its agility, is much closer to the antelopes and saigas than to the other Bovidae that today share with them the alpine environment, such as: Ibex (Capra ibex) , Mouflon (Ovis musimon) and the wild goat (Capra aegagrus).
This species is recognized for having a length between head and body of 110-135 cm, with a height at the withers of 70-80 cm, a tail of 9-15 cm, an average height of the horns of 22-30 cm and a weight oscillating between 25 and 45 kg.
The hooves allow the animal to move safely even on very steep slopes.
During the course of the year, the coat undergoes significant chromatic variations coinciding with the spring and autumn wetsuits.
There is thus a summer coat that is of a faint fawn color with the exception of the legs and a strip of hair along the vertebral column which maintain a dark gray hue. The winter coat is instead almost entirely black.
In addition, this animal, living at very high altitudes, where the air is deficient in oxygen, has a respiratory system characterized by significantly developed lungs.
The chamois has interdigital, preputial and supraoccipital glands, the secretions of which are probably used in intraspecific communication.
The supraoccipital glands (the size of a walnut), present in both sexes, are particularly developed in males during the reproductive period (they begin to grow from September): their secretion is used to mark the territory, when the animal rubs the head and horns against shrubs and rocks.
It seems that the highly odorous substance released by these glands also has the function of stimulating the predisposition for mating in females. For this reason they are also called “fregola glands”.
The chamois has a good olfactory capacity, but also a good view precisely in relation to its biotope, largely open, which can sometimes determine an olfactory information that is not very reliable, for example due to the variation of the winds.
The Alpine chamois is a mammal whose male sexual maturity is added at 18 months while the social one towards 2-3 years. The reproductive phase occurs only once a year. The reproductive period occurs between the months of November and December.
The estrus of the female lasts from 36 to 72 hours and, if it has not been fertilized, it repeats itself after about three weeks.
The period of inspiration occurs only once a year and significantly changes the behavior of the animal. Chamois tend to be more gregarious and at this stage, flocks of 40-50 individuals can be observed, grouping in the areas of alpine pastures on steep slopes.
At the end of December, with the end of the heat, the animals gradually separate and resume their usual activities.
Mating occurs after the fight between males for the female contest (dispute that rarely leads to the death of one of the contenders).
The gestation period of the female lasts between 160 and 180 days and ends in the months of May-June.
The female, about a month before giving birth, moves away from the herd and, in a very sheltered environment, gives birth to only one puppy that is breastfed until autumn even if the latter, in August, has already learned to choose the best herbs.
The baby remains with the mother for the entire first year of life, until the moment of the next birth when it is removed. If, on the other hand, the female is not pregnant, it can happen that this bond lasts for a year. To this end, it is a hunting practice to prohibit the killing of the female, if followed by the baby of the year, since a killing in the hunting period (especially if in the first month) can lead to the kid’s decay if not to death by predation or hunger .
Chamois can theoretically reach 25 years of age, but in reality few exceed 15-16 years.
From the age of 10 the “old age” phase begins, their weight will decrease steadily until their death. The hair loses its color becoming gradually more grayish.
From this age onwards, the mortality rate begins to increase, which further increases after 14-15 years. The most important factor in this growth is the wear of the teeth: it affects so much the ability to obtain food that very few individuals are able to exceed 21-22 years.
It is important to note that, like humans, females have a higher life expectancy.
The kids (individuals under one year of age) have a life expectancy of 50-70% in winter and around 90% in summer.
Ecological role –
The remains of the presence of the Alpine chamois were found in the Pyrenees and date back to a period oscillating between 250,000 and 150,000 years ago (Riss glaciation).
Its maximum diffusion was however between 80 000 and 12 000 years ago (Würm glaciation): at this time, driven by the pressing of the glaciers, the chamois was distributed in almost all of Central Europe and in part of that south central.
Following the subsequent climatic and environmental changes, this species was deprived, at least for the highest altitudes, of the habitat suitable for its survival; so it was that its range was reduced and fragmented and thus began to differentiate the different subspecies.
The Alpine chamois is somewhat similar to the Pyrenean chamois (Rupicapra pyrenaica) and the Apennine chamois (Ssp. Rupicapra pyrenaica ornata), endemic to the central Apennines and considered in turn, a subspecies of the chamois of the Pyrenees.
The habitat of the chamois is that of the areas above the upper limit of the arboreal vegetation, mostly rocky, or deciduous and coniferous forests, especially in winter, even reaching altitudes of only 500 m a.s.l.
From the social point of view it is a gregarious animal, with very open herds formed by females with their puppies and by sub-adults of both sexes.
It is also a typically diurnal animal and its diet is essentially vegetable, acting as a burner and being able to consume even very coarse fodder (super-ruminant).
The chamois has the stomach divided into four cavities: rumen, lattice, omasum and abomasus.
As for the position, among ruminants, with respect to the type of feeding, among Ruminant Ungulates there is a classification based on the type of food selected which is divided into three categories:
– concentrated food burners or selectors;
– grazers or consumers of raw fodder;
– intermediate type herbivores.
The former (elk, roe deer) are typical users of foods rich in nutrients and low in fiber (sprouts, buds, etc.), have large salivary glands, highly developed liver, small rumen, short intestine, large blind; their diet regulates numerous periods of activity and short duration, while digestion is rather rapid.
The latter (sheep, cattle, mouflon) are instead heavy consumers of raw fodder, even with high fiber content, they have a digestive anatomy opposite to the previous ones and they spend their time dedicated to feeding by dividing it into fewer periods of activity longer lasting, among which they dedicate as many long pauses for rumination.
The chamois, in fact, occupies an intermediate position, with a trend towards the category of selectors, due to the choice it makes of both the plant species and the part of the plant to be consumed. For this reason, he is called “opportunist” because, although he does not belong to either category, he is able to vary his diet in quantity and quality in relation to seasonal influences.
From December to March, the diet mainly consists (from 56 to 93%) of dried herbs that are obtained by digging with hooves in the snow, lichens, needles and resinous buds (such as white fir, Swiss stone pine, mountain pine) .
In the spring period, which runs from April to May, the Chamois prefers buds, fresh herbs and inflorescences. The selected species belong above all to the grass family (Agrostis rupestris, Festuca sp., Poa alpina, Poa laxa, Poa pratensis), and to the group of herbaceous Dicotyledons (Bromus erectus, Colchicum autunnale, Plantago alpina, Trifolium alpinum, Trisetum flavescens).
In the summer, from June to late September, with the period of greatest plant abundance, the animals have the opportunity to select the preferred essences in detail, so herbaceous plants (Lotus corniculatus, Medicago sativa, Trifolium alpinum) and young shoots appear in the chamois diet. of shrubs (Juniperus sp. and Rhododendron sp).
The quantity of vegetables ingested can be considerable considering that the rumen content of a large male can weigh even more than 10 kg.
In the autumn, months of October-November, there is a gradual return to winter feeding, with a diet consisting of 50-60% of late grasses (Festuca sp., Poa sp.), About 20% of other types of herbaceous plants and the remaining 20-30% from shrubs such as Juniperus sp., Rhododendron sp. and Vaccinium myrtillus. In late October, the fat deposits, accumulated since June, reach the highest levels: they will serve as an energy reserve during the mating period and to compensate for the food shortages of the cold season.
The water requirement is satisfied with the water present in the ingested plants or deposited on them in the form of dew. The mineral salts (sodium, calcium, phosphorus and magnesium) are instead integrated by licking the rocks and molds.
Chamois feed at various times of the day with greater intensity at sunrise and sunset with an extension even at night in the summer.
From a social point of view, the chamois is described as a “gregarious” animal and social behavior seems to be linked to the existence of hierarchies within the groups.
In reality, this definition is valid especially for females. The latter, in fact, live for most of the year in groups of changing dimensions, regulated by various factors: food availability, morpho-climatic conditions of the territory, population structure and density, reproductive behavior. These groups, in addition to the females, are made up of kids and, sometimes, even some 2-3 year olds.
The most obvious feature of the social organization of chamois is sexual segregation. In fact, during most of the year, with the exception of the reproductive period, the adults of the two sexes live, even geographically, separated and this trend is strengthened with age. Sub-adult males (3-5 years old) tend to live in isolation or aggregate in small groups (2 or 3 individuals), are very mobile in the area and perform altitudinal shifts of a certain importance. Adult males tend to be solitary and, during the year, frequent areas of 300-500 ha, usually at lower altitudes than females.
In autumn, as the mating period approaches, the chamois males approach the herds of the females, who have come down to lower altitudes.
During this period, for a few weeks, they mark and defend their own territory of a few hectares within which they try to retain the females through courtship rituals.
The chamois marks its territory by rubbing its horns against shrubs, tufts of grass and rocks in order to deposit the odorous substance produced by the “fregola” glands, located just behind the trophy; remove any other male by adopting direct and indirect threatening behavior.
When a mature male encounters another chamois, it assumes the characteristic “imposition” attitude: the neck and head are carried upright, the hair and the “dorsal beard” are straightened, the movements are solemn and, at times, the musculature is shaken .
This intimidating behavior is usually sufficient to ward off a still young animal, but if the opponent has a similar “hierarchical degree” one can witness long pursuits at high speed which can also end with violent contact between the two animals.
– Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
– Gordon Corbet, Denys Ovenden, 2012. Guide to the mammals of Europe. Franco Muzzio Editore.
– John Woodward, Kim Dennis-Bryan, 2018. The great encyclopedia of animals. Gribaudo Editore.