Monday, August 8, 2011

Mountain Goats and Telescopes

Mountain goats seem friendly to tourists, 
but really they just want to lick our sweat!
Today we will finish up our previous discussion of Mount Evans in Colorado. Travelling to the summit at 4,300 m we pass through montane and subalpine life zones before reaching the alpine zone. The largest mammal found in this high-altitude habitat is the Rocky Mountain goat, which are actually members of the antelope family. They are only found in North America, predominantly in the Rocky Mountains and the Cascade Range. They eat the abundant grasses, sedges and lichens found at this altitude with little worry about predators such as wolves or bears which are at lower elevations. The only predator they have to contend with at this elevation are golden eagles which can threaten their young.
   Mountain goats are primarily an alpine/subalpine species, remaining above or near the tree line for most of they year, but occasionally travelling to lower elevations. In winter they descend to lower elevations to find protection from the harsh winter elements and to obtain essential mineral nutrients by visiting natural salt and mineral licks that have become exposed by the winter weather. In the summer the goats are attracted to the summit tourist sites because they can lick the salts left behind by sweaty park visitors!
   They are excellent climbers and prefer to live on steep cliffs where few predators will follow. They have specialized split hooves that have a hard outer lining with soft, rubbery pads and dewclaws for extra grip. They have two layers of fur to protect them from the elements: a fine dense undercoat of wool and an outer layer of long hollow hairs.
   Mountain goats can be aggressive, but not usually towards humans. The billies will fight amongst themselves during breeding season and the nannies will fight with each other for herd dominance or to protect their kids.
   Also located near the summit of Mount Evans is the world’s third-highest telescope, the Meyer-Womble observatory. Operated by the University of Denver, its relative isolation and location east of the continental divide provides drier, less cloudy and less windy conditions compared to typical resort climates near Denver. Researchers use this telescope to study cosmic rays. Cosmic rays are high-energy charged particles that rain down on the Earth at nearly the speed of light before smashing into atoms in the upper atmosphere. Some by-products from these collisions reach the surface of the Earth resulting in a charged atmosphere or interacting to creating biologic mutations. We are normally shielded from these cosmic rays by our dense atmosphere at lower elevations, but the thin air at the summit does not offer the same amount of protection, making it an ideal location to study them.

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