The highest animals on Earth

Julie Andrews once sang about how ‘high on a hill stood a lonely goat herd.’ Apart from teaching us how to yodel, it also unknowingly provided an insight into how this hardy creature lives its life and how many more species call the mountain tops home.

A snow leopard on a snowy mountain edge
The snow leopard, known as the 'Ghost of the Mountain'. © BBC NHU 2016
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Mountains are truly an extreme habitat. The animals that live here face all kinds of challenges to survive including cold, lack of food and isolation. Some of the harshest environments that animals call home are found in the world’s mountain ranges, from the Himalayas to the Rockies and beyond.

With harsh terrain, steep slopes and inhospitable weather, life above the treeline isn’t for the faint-hearted. If you head uphill on any high mountain there comes a point where trees simply stop growing. This is the tree line. Above this magic contour the atmosphere is too cold, winds too high and conditions too hostile for trees to survive. This barren habitat may not be as productive as grasslands or jungles, but it does play host to a remarkably diverse range of life, and many of the creatures found at these altitudes are found nowhere else on the planet.

Amongst these mountain peaks lives the most elusive and mysterious of animals – the snow leopard (Panthera uncia). Known as the ‘Ghosts of the Mountains’ snow leopards are rarely seen. There may be fewer than 3500 still in existence, and the Himalayas are one of the very few places where this enigmatic mammal can be seen.

This solitary animal is perfectly adapted to life above the treeline. Its stocky body has thick fur to minimize heat loss and its wide furry paws maximise grip on steep surfaces and when walking in the snow. A long, thick and flexible tail acts as a balancing aid, and even doubles up as a handy blanket to protect its face when sleeping. High mountain ranges are the ideal hunting ground for these athletic creatures as their agile bodies can power through the mountains and attack from above. With the ability to jump as far as 14 meters, prey has little warning of their impending attack.

Despite living in solitude, snow leopards communicate with each other by scent marking specific spots in their territories. This allows them to keep track of other nearby leopards and identify potential mates. Once a year a male leopard will choose a mate and stay with her for a few days before disappearing back to his own territory and his own company. A mother will then stay with her cubs for up to a year before they set out on their own life adventure.

Life isn’t only hard for the larger mammals on the mountains. Smaller creatures face their own battles. Pikas (Ochotona) are the smallest members of the rabbit family. Their shrill whistles can be heard through the mountainous regions of North America and Asia, but they are rarely spotted. These adorable creatures have characteristic stout bodies, protruding ears and no visible tails. But don’t be deceived- they may look cute, but they are amongst the mountains’ toughest inhabitants.

Living in temperatures that rarely rise above freezing, pikas thrive above the tree line in exposed alpine terrain. The large-eared pika of the Himalayas is one of the highest living mammals, found at heights of over 6000 m. Pikas are prone to overheating so they migrate to the highest points of their ranges in the summer- cold, treacherous, rocky areas where many mammals wouldn’t survive. Pikas are organised creatures, and in summer they busy themselves storing up wildflowers and grasses. They dry out their harvest in the heat of the sun before creating a stockpile in their den ready for the change in season.

The large-eared pika sitting in a gap between rocks in the Himalayas
The large-eared pika of the Himalayas is one of the highest living mammals. © BBC NHU 2016

Surprisingly, winter isn’t about hibernation for the pika; equipped with incredibly thick coats, and even fur on the soles of their feet, pikas can stay warm enough to burrow through snow and travel a network of tunnels to reach their stock and check on the weather conditions above. But what about that lonely goat herd? The Rocky Mountain Goat (Oreamnos americanus) is one of the many species of goat and like the ones we are all currently singing about in our head (I know you are) they do lead a lonely isolated life above the treeline in small herds. These wild goats are native to North America and make their homes on cliffs that would be dangerous for predators, climbing steep, rocky slopes with pitches exceeding 60°.

A wild mountain goat in a snowy landscape
Wild Mountain Goats make their homes on cliffs that would be dangerous for predators. © BBC NHU 2016

Their hooves are relatively large, with a soft rubber-like sole to help them keep a foothold and they have sharp dewclaws at the back of their feet to stop them from slipping. They have powerful leg muscles that help propel them up steep slopes and have been known to jump more than 3 metres between craggy rocks. These incredibly agile animals spend their time in steep mountainous terrain, which other animals would struggle to get to. They easily move up and down the almost vertical cliffs and in this hostile environment this plays a big part in predator avoidance.

Living the high life may sound like it has just come from a film but for these and many more creatures, life above the tree line is about survival, not just of the fittest but by the cleverest. Those wise enough to live high in the mountain tops are wise enough to adapt their lifestyle to suit the ever changing tree line.

Featured photo © BBC NHU 2016