This One Will Get Your Goat
By Jenny McGlone
Chapel Hill, NC, United States
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s…a goat?
In southwestern Morocco, people know a surprising truth about goats: They can climb. In fact, they can climb better than humans, given their unique physiology and instincts. They can perch on trees, rocks, and steep vertical surfaces as easily as we can perch on our front stoops. Pretty remarkable, considering that the largest goats can weigh up to 300 pounds!
Because goats are not only nimble but also intelligent and inquisitive, their search for food can lead them to unexpected places. Goats living in the mountains have been seen foraging at elevations up to 8,500 feet. They do not like eating food that has dropped on the ground, so what better way to locate unspoiled treats than by peering upwards?
In the Sous region of Morocco, bordering the Sahara desert, goats scale trees in order to locate their beloved argan fruit. These animals gain 47 to 84 percent of their calories from the fruit and leaves of the argan trees. They chew an average of 50,000 times per day to begin the process of digesting this material through four stomachs.
One benefit that humans gain from such a feast is the end result: the undigested Argan nuts that remain in the droppings of the goats. Each nut contains one to three almond-shaped seeds, which are roasted, ground, and pressed. They produce a valuable cosmetic and culinary liquid sold in international markets at prices exceeding US$300 per liter. It may take 88 pounds of Argan seeds to get one liter of oil, so these ruminants must chew quickly!
Be careful if you visit this area, because some people believe goat sightings are a hoax. They have become so popular that farmers might be forcing them into the trees to attract tourists, who pay for the opportunity to take a picture.
At this current point in evolutionary history, goats have come to possess several helpful physical characteristics that facilitate their ability to scale great heights. First, attached to flexible ankle bones, their small, delicate feet each comprise two split toes that can wedge into small cracks for traction. In addition, they have rubbery pads on the bottoms of their hooves that mimic the most expensive climbing shoes. Finally, two digit-like structures called dewclaws sit higher on their legs and halt any unintended slippages.
Another death-defying goat climbing spot is in northern Italy, where a dam offers Mount Everest-like challenges. The bare stone walls of the Cingino hydroelectric dam attract wild mother goats and their kids, who lick, nibble, and chomp their way across its 160-foot walls. At an incline of 80 degrees, the surface is free of predators but certainly presents other dangers.
A final testimony to the clambering reputation of goats comes from a farmer in Illinois named David Johnson. He built a 31-foot castle tower for his 24 goats. His tower of 5,000 handmade bricks is circumscribed by a 276-step spiral staircase and punctuated by three openings on each side.
The goats on this farm? They have it in the ba-a-a-ag.
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Learning Activities for Middle School:
- What shape would you use to describe the bottom of a goat’s hooves? Use your knowledge of the properties of this shape to describe why it is good for gripping.
- The two toes of goats are symmetrical. Describe the concept of symmetry and why you think this quality helps goats climb.
- The further away a goat stands from the base of a branch, the more force it exerts on that branch. Write an equation that models the relationship between distance from the base of the branch and force exerted.
- Describe how the hooves transfer downward force to sideways force. Refer to this site for some help.
- Set your textbook up at a 10-degree angle. Measure the two legs and hypotenuse of the right triangle formed. Now make a 30-degree angle and measure the three sides. Repeat with 45, 60, and 80 degrees. What patterns do you see? Make a prediction about what is the steepest angle you could stand on.
Social Justice Question
Research the risks of the argan oil boom. Identify the major issues at stake and discuss what you think about them.
- News story, two-minute video, and four-minute video about goats grazing on the Cingino dam
- Analysis of the local costs and benefits of argan oil’s popularity
- Explanation of why argan oil costs so much
- News video about argan oil production in Morocco
- Website for Goat Tower Farm in Illinois
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