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What’s That Clinging To The Towering Wall And Why Doesn’t It Fall Off?

Filed by KOSU News in Science.
December 16, 2013

Maybe you’ve seen this, (it’s gotten around), but I’m still gobsmacked. Totally amazed. We’re in northern Italy looking at the face of the Cingino Dam, and here and there on the vertical stone wall, you’ll see a few dark specks.

Here they are again, a little closer. They look like protruding rocks, or maybe some kind of metal studs, but lean in, and you’ll see they have what seem to be … legs.

That’s because those are legs. These are goats, Alpine ibexes. They’re here because this wall is rich with salt, a mineral they crave, so they’ve come to lick, while balancing matter-of-factly with four feet(!) on a surface so narrow, that I can’t figure out how they manage it. This wall — when we look straight down — is drastically steep.

She’s perched on almost nothing …

And yet, they casually browse the surface as if they were wandering across a country road. They also can make little leaps upward, and sometimes will swing around, two legs briefly dangling mid-air, which makes me sweaty even to think about, but then I realize — these animals are wired differently from me; they are designed for verticality — like mountain sheep. Watching sheep go bounding up a vertical wall, the writer Ellen Meloy once observed, they get their power from their backsides: “The rump carried all the muscle … with nothing beneath their hooves but air and a foothold barely larger than my lower lip.”

I guess this goat is balancing on a “lower lip’s” worth of footing … but she doesn’t seem in any way nervous …

She looks more (again paraphrasing Ellen) like a “mildly bored ballerina.” It must be scarier going down. Do they ever slip and fall on their heads? Not often, it seems. Here’s Laura Antimiani’s video, (the source of my images) where you can see them in motion.

I could never, ever, ever do what these animals do. There are people who delight in hanging from a hairsbreadth of rock, who drive all night to find a wall of stone where an eighth of an inch makes all the difference between staying and plunging. I’m not one of them. But sometimes I wonder what it would be like to have an Aladdin’s lamp with a genie inside who could — just for, oh, 20 minutes — turn me into mountain goat, so I could feel what it’s like to have my fears become my delights, so that I could look straight down, spot a tuft of salt, and think, “Oooh, how delicious!” and then, without a care, leap straight into the empty, open air …

Ellen Meloy’s book on Colorado mountain sheep is called Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild. [Copyright 2013 NPR]

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