An Enigmatic Beast
What to call the Mountain Goat
I have long been interested in names so it was with particular delight when I learned of the wonderful naming odyssey of mountain goats, one of the animals I am writing about for my book on the Cascades. They are known scientifically as Oreamnos americanus—from the Ancient Greek, óros, meaning mountain, and amnós, or lamb, plus americanus, in reference to their limited distribution to Alaska, Canada, Washington, Idaho, and Montana. (Óros is also the basis for the term orogeny, or mountain building; I think it’s pretty darned swell to find such a lovely etymological connection between the animals and their domain.)
Because the earliest non-Native explorers to the PNW stuck to the lowlands, none of them saw a living mountain goat. But they did encounter evidence of the animals. Traveling with George Vancouver in June 1792, naturalist Archibald Menzies saw skins “from which the fine white wool comes…procured by [the coastal people] barter[ing] from the natives inland.” Fourteen years later Meriwether Lewis acquired blankets, skins, and a “highly prized” hat made of a sheep head with horns. In his journal on February 22, 1806, he wrote: “I should be much pleased at meeting with this animal.”
Lewis acquired the hat in a trade on the expedition’s return home at the Cascades of the Columbia, near the modern day Bonneville Fish Hatchery. They were on the north side at the village of the Watlalas, an Upper Chinookan tribe usually called the Cascades, who lived along the Columbia River but like many lowland tribes also ventured to higher ground. The Watlalan trader of the hat told Lewis and Clark that the animals were found in the surrounding mountains “in large flocks among the steep rocks.” Hunters had recently killed two of a herd of thirty-six not far from their village.
The hat and one skin, without legs or head, collected by Lewis and the Corps of Expedition ended up in Philadelphia with zoologist George Ord, who used them to name the species Ovis montanus, or the Rocky Mountain sheep, in 1815. Few seemed to agree with Ord and over the next 80 years, naturalists, most of whom had not seen living mountain goats, placed the animals in six additional genera, including Mazama, the Nahuatl name for a deer. Nor could researchers agree on a common name; some liked sheep, others antelope, and a few goat. Finally, in 1895, mammologist C. Hart Merriam “discovered” that naturalist C.S. Rafinesque had coined but not used the term Oreamnos in 1817, and Rafinesque’s name became the accepted genus. By then goat had replaced sheep as the preferred common name.
Scientists may agree on the genus of our mountain goat, but they continue to struggle to figure out the animals’ closest relatives. They will also tend to inform you, albeit politely, that Oreamnos is not a true goat, a name that applies only to those animals in the genus Capra. Nor are Capra and Oreamnos as closely related as they appear physically. The potential sister, or closest, taxa, as they are called, of Oreamnos are a far-flung lot including the Tibetan antelope, muskox (circumpolar), European chamois, and the Sumatran goral. (Fossil evidence shows that several muskox species and an ancestral mountain goat reached North America from Asia across the Bering Land Bridge during the Pleistocene.) Because of the uncertainty, Aaron Shafer, who has long studied mountain goat genetics and evolution, calls mountain goats a weird enigma, a rogue taxa with controversial relationships to other members of their subfamily. “The point is that there’s a lot we just don’t know,” he told me. “They are still this evolutionary puzzle.
I find it fascinating that despite more than two centuries of observation, description, cataloguing, collecting, and analysis, we have many questions, some as basic as “Who are you?” in regard to mountain goats. Not that mountain goats are atypical. Whenever I research a species, I am reminded of a story I read about a field ecologist. He said something to the effect that after a couple of years studying mountain lions he thought he had a good grasp of their life history but after studying them for more than two decades, he realized that he only knew a bit about the handful of specific animals he had seen in the field. Like humans, the life histories and habits of plants and animals cannot be learned easily or quickly.
Because western scientists tend to have only limited knowledge about a species, often based, as the mountain lion researcher noted, on just a handful of individuals of a species, managers sometimes fail to base their decisions on adequate information. I don’t mean this as a criticism. Such is the reality of the world we inhabit with busy schedules, degraded ecosystems, and numerous regulations; very few researchers can devote their lives to the observation and interaction necessary to a more thorough knowledge of a species and their ecosystem. But some of that knowledge does exist. One of the more recent and long overdue changes in the world of biological research is that western scientists are recognizing the importance of what is called traditional ecological knowledge, the deep storehouse of information held by Indigenous people who have lived with and learned from and about their local plants and animals for generations.
I know I don’t have the time I’d like to observe the species I write about so I try to establish a relationship with a plant or animal by talking to experts, reading the research, and getting out in the field every opportunity I can. Learning the name of a species is often my opening gesture in that process, particularly in relation to how we perceive and interact with them. When I began to write about mountain goats, for example, they were simply a goat of the mountains, but after following their naming trail I now see connective tissues linking past and present from the wonder of early explorers to naturalists wrestling with an enigmatic animal to modern scientists employing the latest technology to tease out evolutionary lines.
My fascination with names is essential scaffolding in building an etymology of the landscape. As with words, learning these derivations and histories helps me develop a fluency in which to story the geology, flora, and fauna and create a multi-dimensional community, across time and space.
March 18 - 4pm - Port Townsend - Quimper Geological Society - I will be both live and virtual talking about the Secrets of Seattle’s Geology.
Great post. Wonderful deep dive into American Natural History.
Love the commentary here on how our initial efforts to name / describe a species often become a stand-in for the long-term living-with required to know another species in any great detail. Something I confront in my own work as a naturalist is how understudied many species are at a local level, whether it's timing, range, population trends, responses to human impacts — an example being the sentiment among old-timers here on the Key Peninsula that mountain beavers (another quirky name history) are vanishing. That is something I would love to substantiate. Hard to tell stories about species at a local level without more people paying close attention. Anyway, great post, thank you. I'm guessing you know it, but the book A Beast the Color of Winter by Douglas Chadwick is excellent.