Ibex tread warily in avalanche country

Ibexes are a common sight on steep slopes in the Swiss Alps Keystone Archive

Switzerland’s native ibex may hold the key to avoiding deadly avalanches in the Alps.

This content was published on January 30, 2004 - 18:34

New research has shown that these wild mountain goats are rarely caught in killer snow and rock slides despite wintering in danger zones.

Scientists from the Davos-based Swiss Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research (SLF) have been tracking a small group of ibexes near Zweisimmen in the Bernese Oberland for over two years.

The researchers wanted to understand why so few of the animals were killed during the harshest season of the year.

These hardy mountain goats are believed have a sixth sense about impending danger, but until now there has been no factual basis to back up this claim.

“Our scientists wanted to know if there was any truth to this statement,” said Birgit Ottmer of the SLF.

Avalanche corridors

Radio-tracking data has revealed that the ibexes tend to congregate in small areas on steep slopes above avalanche corridors during the winter, rarely straying from their chosen location. In the summer, the animals have a much wider range.

Field observations have also shown that the ibex often stay hidden in clefts in the rocks after a fresh snowfall, staying nearby for up to a week. But the researchers have so far failed to draw any definitive conclusions.

“We don’t know if they stay put because of some impending danger, or because they find it hard to move in fresh snow,” Ottmer told swissinfo. The biggest animals can weigh up to 80 kilogrammes.

Still, the ibexes seem to be able to evaluate risks, according to observations. If they sense danger, they only move if they feel it is necessary.

Impending danger

The ibexes also seem to adapt their movements to winter conditions. The scientists found that they only move around during the day, and probably avoiding walking on snow if visibility is limited.

In summer, the males can travel longer distances after sunset.

The animals also choose to winter on slopes facing south, where temperatures are generally higher and the snow melts faster.

But despite their apparent sixth sense, it doesn’t seem likely the ibexes will be used as avalanche detectors in future.

“We think the ibexes know instinctively when a situation is dangerous, but not necessarily where it would be safe for them,” said Ottmer.

And they won’t be replacing human detection methods in Swiss ski resorts soon. “Human systems are easier to interpret, so ibexes will never act as avalanche guards.”

swissinfo, Scott Capper

Key facts

The researchers have been following a small group of ibexes that was reintroduced near Zweisimmen between 2001 and 2003.
Ibexes were common in Switzerland until the beginning of the 19th century, when the last one was shot in canton Valais.
The animals were reintroduced gradually from the early 20th century and there are around 15,000 ibexes in Switzerland today.

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In brief

Scientists have been trying to discover if ibexes truly have a sixth sense when it comes to detecting avalanches in winter.

Ibexes are rarely killed by snow or rock slides.

Observations have failed to determine though whether they sense impending danger or simply avoid walking in fresh snow.

But the animals seem to be prepared to wait until danger has passed.

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