The Alps stretch nearly 700 miles through Europe, from Monaco to Albania, bordering both the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas. From France through Austria and down through the Balkans, these mountains are bursting with at least 30,000 animal species including 80 types of mammals and 200 species of birds, according to MAVA Nature Foundation.
The stocky native European chamois -- think part goat, part antelope -- weighs more than 100 pounds and boasts thick fur that turns from brown to grey in winter. It has short, curved horns above a white face with black markings, and has a black stripe along its backbone. The chamois is protected by law, but natural predators such as wildcats and wolves seek this herbivore. The brown alpine ibex, meanwhile, lives above the treeline and nimbly navigates steep slopes and rocky clearings. During winter the ibex moves lower, and females roam in herds of 10 to 20 while males stay with their summer herds or are solitary; males and female herds join up from fall through early spring. Hunting in the early 19th century brought the ibex to the point of extinction, but now tens of thousands live in the mountains, with the greatest population in Switzerland.
Weighing up to a thick 14 pounds, and sometimes measuring more than 2 feet long, the marmot is a signature rodent in the Alps. It hibernates from October through March and emerges in spring from a network of burrows to begin foraging in mountain meadows. The marmot lives in family groups and stakes out territory that remains the same as seasons change. Their multi-room burrows include a nursery for marmot babies and a waste elimination area. Two other alpine rodents join the marmot above the treeline, the snow vole and the common vole.
Out of the 30,000 animal species in the Alps, 20,000 are invertebrates. Despite the bitter climate in the highest elevations, spiders and beetles are tucked behind rocks. A bit lower down the mountains, where flowering plants bloom, butterflies and moths are plentiful. Snails munch their way up the treeline, and a tiny springtail called a snow flea enjoys the iciest parts of the Alps.
In addition to the 200 species of birds that call the Alps home -- including grouse, golden eagles, vultures and nutcrackers -- another 200 species pass through in migration. The wallcreeper prefers the rocky canyons at high altitudes, where the long-billed wren digs in nooks and crannies for tasty insects. The wallcreeper's gray, black and white hues are punctuated by vivid red wings.
Amphibians and Reptiles
Fifteen reptiles and 21 amphibians inhabit the Alps, including the Alpine salamander. Preferring humid, grassy or wooded areas, this crack-dwelling black creature emerges after rainfall or at night. You might not see one for six to eight months, though, considering its hibernation period. If you see one, look but don't touch: It excretes a toxic liquid when it feels threatened. Other reptiles and amphibians in the Alps include snakes, lizards, newts, toads and frogs.
The distinctive lynx, with tufted ears and thick paws, was wiped out from the Alps in the late 19th century by vanishing food sources and hunters. The Eurasian lynx was reintroduced to the region in the late 20th century, but populations are still small and spread apart. Conservationists closely monitor the lynx's progress and its interaction with humans living in the Alps, to try to ensure long-term survival of the cat. Programs have also had to reintroduce wolves and bears, with mixed success both in terms of public reception and trying to ward off threats such as poachers.
- World Atlas: Alps
- MAVA Nature Foundation: Alpine Arc & Switzerland
- A-Z Animals: Chamois
- The Alpine Marmot Project: An Introduction
- Large Herbivore Network: Ibex
- Creagus: Wallcreeper
- Ungulates in the Alps
- Rodents in the European Alps
- Switzerland Foreign Affairs: Mountain Birds
- 1902 Enclyclopedia: Invertebrates of the Alps
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