The Chamois

Alpine Chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra)

Widely spread across the Dolomites, the Alpine chamois is an ungulate belonging to the Bovidae family. Resembling goats, it is included with them and sheep in the subfamily Caprinae.

It is quite similar to the only other species in the Rupicapra genus, the Pyrenean chamois (Rupicapra pyrenaica), and is locally present in Italy with an endemic subspecies, the Abruzzo chamois (Rupicapra pyrenaica ornata).

The chamois is an ungulate that, in terms of body shape and size, as well as agility, is closer to antelopes and saigas than to other Bovids that share the alpine environment: ibex (Capra ibex), mouflon (Ovis musimon), and wild goat (Capra aegagrus).


Distribution

The oldest fossil remains of chamois were found in the Pyrenees and date back to 250,000 to 150,000 years ago (Riss Glaciation). The species reached its maximum distribution between 80,000 and 12,000 years ago (Würm Glaciation), spreading throughout much of central and southern Europe.
Subsequent climatic and environmental changes deprived this ungulate (in lower elevations) of suitable habitats for its survival. Consequently, its distribution range was reduced, and fragmented, and different subspecies began to emerge.

Today, chamois are present in the mountain systems of central and southern Europe. In the early 1900s, they were introduced in New Zealand. In Italy, chamois are found on mountain slopes of the Alps, with a population of over 100,000 individuals in 1995 and expanding.

The highest concentration of individuals is observed in the provinces of Belluno, Trento, and Bolzano, as well as in Piedmont, which together account for 62% of Italian alpine chamois.

In 1994, a small group of chamois settled in the Trieste Karst, probably due to illegal introduction. This event led the Province of Trieste to initiate a study to assess the compatibility of the species with the local environment.

The chamois call

Whistling. Yes, the chamois whistles. At the slightest warning of danger, the individual that has taken note of it freezes and emits from its nose an unusually hoarse but at the same time sharp and prolonged whistle. This warning signal is immediately picked up by all the animals in the group, who scrutinize in the same direction with suspicion. The signal to flee is given by the leader, who strikes the ground with a front hoof.

Size and Weight of the Alpine Chamois

The total body length of the chamois, measured from the tip of the head to the base of the tail, varies between 130 and 150 cm in males and between 105 and 125 cm in females.

The height, measured at the withers, ranges from 85 to 92 cm in males and from 70 to 78 cm in females. Body weight is primarily influenced by age and sex, with the maximum value reached around 5-9 years: in adult males, it can reach 50 kg, while adult females weigh around 40-42 kg.

Yearlings (one-year-old individuals) weigh around 15-20 kg. Body weight varies significantly throughout the year, with maximum values reached during the period of peak fat accumulation in October.


Adult males, at the end of the reproductive period, can lose almost a third of their body weight due to the intense energy expenditure during fights with rivals. In general, however, between January and April, there is a decrease in body mass for all individuals, affected by the harsh winter conditions.

The size of the chamois track is approximately 6 x 3.5-5 cm, rectangular in shape, with hooves that are more elongated and straight in appearance compared to the ibex.

Chamois footprint

Build

In males, the overall silhouette is more robust, with greater development of the front part, while the female appears more slender, with a predominance of the abdomen and the hindquarters. The neck, short and stout in males, is thin in females, giving the impression that the latter has a more elongated snout compared to the male.

Coat

The chamois coat is essentially composed of two types of fur, capable of protecting it from the harsh climatic conditions of its environment. It provides optimal protection that allows the animal to withstand the extreme temperature fluctuations it faces.
The outermost layer, known as the surface fur (2-4 cm long), is coarser and can trap large amounts of air, providing thermal insulation for the animal’s body. The underlying layer called the woolly fur or primary fur, is very fine and whitish, becoming sparser in the summer.
The chamois coat undergoes two molts: one in autumn and one in spring. In winter, the fur is long, soft, and dense, ranging from dark brown to blackish. Thanks to its dark shade, the fur absorbs sunlight to a large extent, providing the animal with an additional source of warmth. The only light-colored parts are the nasal area, the ventral region, and the anal patch.

During this season, in males, the silhouette is characterized by the so-called “brush”: a tuft of hair in the preputial region, very noticeable after the fifth year of age but already well-defined around three years.
Highly developed in males but also present in females is the “dorsal beard”: a band of long dark hairs (6-7 cm in summer but can reach 30 cm during mating season) that develops along the midline and becomes thicker, especially at the withers and rump. The animal raises it when in danger or asserting dominance over a rival.

The spring molt begins in March and lasts for over three months. The dark winter coat of the chamois is then replaced by the summer coat, characterized by shorter and rougher hairs, with shades ranging from pale yellowish to reddish-gray.
In both sexes, a thin line of dark hair follows the dorsal midline. This coat is retained until the end of August when the autumn molt begins, lasting until December. Cases of melanism and albinism have been observed, resulting in fur that is almost black or almost white throughout the animal’s life.

Chamois above Cortina
Chamois above Cortina d’Ampezzo

Scientific Classification

Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammals
Order: Artiodactyla
Superorder: Ungulates
Family: Bovidae
Genus: Rupicapra
Species: R. rupicapra


Chamois Horns

The horns of the chamois, relatively small and of a characteristic ebony black (or dark brown) color, are permanent (unlike Deer, which have deciduous antlers), common to both sexes, and have a typical hooked shape with a circular cross-section. They can reach a length of 20 cm. They are composed of two well-defined parts: the bony core and the horny sheath. The bony cores are protrusions in continuity with the frontal bone and perpendicular to it. The horny sheath, made up of dead epidermal cells and keratin, surrounds them.

The annual growth occurs in alternating phases: during spring (March-April), there is the production of bone tissue, which is deposited at the base of the sheath; in winter, the process stops due to the antagonistic action of sex hormones. This results in the formation of annular grooves visible on the outer surface of the horny covering, known as “growth rings” (or “junction rings”). Counting these rings allows for a reliable assessment of the age of the animal. They begin to grow from birth and are visible at a young age.
The growth is greater in the first three years of life and decreases in the subsequent years.

Generally, horn growth in a chamois kid is about 6-7 cm. In a one-year-old chamois, horn growth is between 6-10 cm, and in a two-year-old chamois, it’s 3-6 cm. In a three-year-old male, growth decreases to 1-1.5 cm, and in a four-year-old, it reaches only 0.5 cm. At the age of five, the horn narrows at the base around the bony core, and growth is limited in the subsequent years to 1-3 mm.

The weight of the horny sheath alone reaches 70 g, which is minimal when compared to the 3-6 kg of an ibex. The development of horns does not show a substantial difference between the sexes; however, those of the male generally have a larger diameter at the base, a more pronounced hook (with an average curvature angle of about 24°, compared to 51° in females), and are less distant from each other at the point of insertion.

On the horns of adult males, traces of resin are often found, resulting from the rubbing activity (“horning”) against coniferous trees, especially during the reproductive period. The Apennine chamois has longer horns than those of the Alpine chamois.

Glands and Sensory Organs

The chamois possesses interdigital, preputial, and supraoccipital glands, the secretions of which are probably used in intraspecific communication.
The supraoccipital glands (about the size of a walnut), present in both sexes, are particularly developed in males during the reproductive period (they start growing in September). Their secretion is used to mark the territory when the animal rubs its head and horns against bushes and rocks.
The strongly odorous substance released by these glands seems to also function in stimulating receptivity to mating in females. For this reason, they are also called “rut glands.”
The chamois has a good sense of smell but also good vision, particularly suited to its mostly open habitat, which can sometimes result in less reliable olfactory information, for example, due to changes in wind direction.

Anatomical peculiarities

The chamois has undergone morphological and physiological adaptations that have allowed it to survive in rugged and heavily snow-covered environments.
Particularly suited for mountain life is the cloven hoof (3rd and 4th toes) with differentiated parts and hardness: the outer edge, hard and sharp, allows the utilization of small footholds on rocks, while the soft pads, by increasing friction, prevent slips and falls during descent.

The chamois’s cloven toes are spreadable and equipped with an interdigital membrane that provides a larger support surface, enabling agile movements even on snow.
The heart, quite voluminous, has thick muscular walls that ensure maintaining a heart rate of two hundred beats per minute and a high blood flow. This allows the chamois to ascend long and steep slopes without excessive effort.
A large lung capacity and a high number of red blood cells (11-13 million per mm3) provide excellent blood oxygenation even at high altitudes, where the air is thinner.

Longevity and life expectancy

In theory, chamois can reach 25 years of age, but in reality, few surpass 15-16 years. The “old age” phase begins around 10 years, during which their weight decreases steadily until their death. The fur loses its color, gradually becoming grayer.
From this age onwards, the mortality rate begins to increase, peaking after 14-15 years. The most significant factor influencing this increase is tooth wear, which conditions their ability to procure food to the extent that very few individuals can surpass 21-22 years.
It is important to note that, similar to humans, females have a higher life expectancy.
Kids (individuals under one year old) have a life expectancy of around 50-70% in winter and approximately 90% in summer.

Habitat of the chamois

The Alpine chamois usually inhabits elevations ranging from 1,000 to 2,800 meters, covering the mountainous horizon characterized by coniferous forests (larch, red fir, Scots pine, and white fir) and/or deciduous forests (beech, chestnut, with a rich understory) interspersed with rocky and steep slopes. This includes the subalpine horizon (with scattered larches and localized patches of alder, mountain pine, and rhododendron) and the alpine horizon (pastures and rocky areas at the limit of vegetation). During periods without snow cover (May-October), the optimal habitat consists of environments with open vegetation, and high-altitude alpine meadows (above 2,000 meters). During this period, it is easy to observe chamois at the edges of snowfields, on shady grassy slopes, in rocky crevices, and on north-facing scree slopes.

During the calving season (May-June), pregnant females exhibit different behaviors compared to conspecifics. While males, immature young, and non-pregnant females gradually ascend to higher altitudes following the grass growth, pregnant females move to give birth on less accessible slopes or even on sheer cliffs.
In the summer months, chamois can be found at very high altitudes; for example, there is a reported observation of an individual at an impressive 4,750 meters, not far from the summit of Mont Blanc.
In winter (November-March), chamois descend to lower elevations and tend to prefer areas with sparse tree cover (such as larch forests) and high solar radiation exposure (East and Southeast), interspersed with steep and rocky slopes where little snow accumulates. In these areas, they can feed and move with less energy expenditure compared to areas with thicker snow cover.

J. Hamr, while tracking some females in northern Tyrol, observed the tendency of certain herds to move to densely forested areas during prolonged (2-5 days) periods of rain, strong winds (100 km/h), or following human hunting activities.

The choice of habitat varies depending on the season, with food availability and the assurance of an escape route being the determining factors.
The optimal summer habitat is represented by alpine meadows, which offer a highly desirable variety of plant species at different stages of maturity.
In winter, steep slopes and rocky walls are preferred due to the limited snow cover, leaving the ground vegetation accessible.

Of fundamental importance, in any case, is the presence of rocky and rugged areas, interspersed with grazing zones and used as escape routes in the face of threats. The absence of steep areas would be the limiting factor for the use of valley pastures (around 800-900 m), which would otherwise fall within the climatic tolerance range of this species.

According to other studies, besides the availability of food and escape routes, various environmental factors influence the chamois’s choice of habitat: the exposure of the slopes, the inclination, and the climatic conditions of the area where the animal lives. Exposure is particularly important in winter months. The inclination is equally significant, although the species’ inherent rock-dwelling tendency is emphasized.
The presence of slopes with an inclination between 30 and 45-50 degrees is considered a favorable element for the winter survival of the species. Controversial, however, is the assessment of the importance of snowfall and the persistence of snow on the ground.
Unlike the ibex, the chamois moves on snow with considerable ease, aided by the particular adaptation of its hoof. However, areas with less snow or devoid of snow would be distinctly preferred according to some authors and not according to others.

Social behavior of the Alpine Chamois

The chamois is described as a “gregarious” animal, and social behavior appears to be linked to the existence of hierarchies within groups. In reality, since the social organization of a species is closely related to the behavior of the individuals that make it up, this definition is especially valid for females. Females mostly live in groups of variable size throughout the year, regulated by various factors such as food availability, morpho-climatic conditions of the territory, population structure and density, and reproductive behaviors. These groups are formed not only by females but also include kids and occasionally some young individuals aged 2-3 years.

The most noticeable characteristic of Chamois social organization is sexual segregation. Indeed, for most of the year, except during the reproductive period, adults of both sexes live, even geographically, separately, and this tendency strengthens with age. Sub-adult males (3-5 years) tend to live alone or in small groups (2 or 3 individuals), are highly mobile in the territory, and make significant altitudinal movements. Adult males tend to be solitary and, throughout the year, frequent areas of 300-500 hectares, usually at lower elevations than females.

Territoriality

In autumn, as the mating season approaches, male chamois approach the herds of females, which have descended to lower altitudes.

During this period, for a few weeks, they mark and defend their territory of a few hectares within which they attempt to retain females through courtship rituals.

The chamois marks its territory by rubbing its horns against bushes, tufts of grass, and rocks to deposit the odorous substance produced by the “fregola” glands, located just behind the trophy; it drives away any other male by adopting both direct and indirect threatening behaviors.

When a male encounters another chamois, it adopts the characteristic posture of “imposition”: the neck and head are held erect, the fur and the “dorsal beard” stand on end, movements are solemn, and at times, the musculature is flexed.

This intimidating behavior is usually sufficient to drive away a still-young animal. However, if the opponent holds a similar “hierarchical rank,” prolonged and high-speed chases may occur, potentially culminating in violent contact between the two animals.

Reproduction

The reproductive period usually begins in late October and concludes in the second half of December, with the peak of mating occurring between the last days of November and the first days of December. The female’s estrus lasts from 36 to 72 hours, and if she is not fertilized, it repeats approximately every three weeks.
The estrus period occurs only once a year and significantly alters the animal’s behavior. Chamois, as mentioned earlier, tend to be more gregarious during this phase, and herds of 40-50 individuals can be observed grouping in alpine pasture areas on steep slopes.

By the end of December, with the end of the heat period, the animals gradually separate and return to their usual activities. Gestation lasts 160-170 days, so the birthing period ranges from May 15 to June 15. Generally, female chamois give birth to a single kid; twin births are extremely rare. Males reach sexual maturity around the 18th month of life but, due to competitiveness, they do not reproduce before the age of 4-5 years. Females can give birth at 2 years, but the more common age for their first birth is at 3 years.

The bond between female and kid

The only stable bond in this species is the one that connects females to their offspring of the year (the “kid”), thereby establishing an open and matriarchal society.
This exclusive relationship is formed during the very first days of the kid’s life: as the time for delivery approaches, the mother, moving away from the group, isolates herself in a suitable and secluded location. A few days after giving birth, which occurs synchronously, groups are formed consisting of females and newborns, primarily located in alpine pastures. These areas provide the necessary food resources for the energy expenditure due to lactation and ensure better nutritional support for the kid.

Alpine pastures are chosen even though, being open areas, they expose young kids to the danger of predation. The females rely on the presence of a large number of individuals, ensuring collective surveillance of the young ones.
The kid remains with the mother throughout the first year of life, until the next birth when it is separated. In cases where the female is not pregnant, this bond may extend for an additional year.