Scientific Name: Capra falconeri heptneri
The markhor’s name comes from the ancient Persian words “mar” and “khor,” which translate into “the snake eater.” Although the markhor has been known occasionally to purposely stomp on a snake and kill it, the markhor is a confirmed herbivore, and it doesn’t actually consume the snake afterwards. He’s just protecting his harem (group of females) from danger!
Well-suited for their alpine habitat, markhors are sensational climbers. The bottoms of their feet are soft, which allows the goats to climb otherwise precarious surfaces with secure footholds. They can even climb straight into the branches of trees!
STATUS: Markhors are listed as Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), with perhaps just 2,500 individuals living in the wild. The herds have been culled by extensive trophy hunting and the claimed medicinal benefits of their ground-up horns.
HABITAT: Markhors survive on the steep arid hillsides of the Himalayan Mountains in Central Asia, including the countries of Tajikistan and Afghanistan. In the summer months, they can be found as high as 13,000 feet above sea level, foraging on grasses; in the winter, they avoid deep snow.
DIET: Markhors graze on various grasses during the spring and summer; when the grasses are gone, they browse on leaves, shrubs, and twigs. These goats will stretch up onto the toes of their hind legs to reach the best vegetation. They will feed for up to 12 hours a day and then retreat to regurgitate their prize and re-chew their cud in peace during the hot afternoon hours.
PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS: The markhor is about as big as a goat can get, with some individuals topping the scales at over 240 pounds. This is a species that demonstrates an extreme version of what the naturalists call “sexual dimorphism,” which refers to the fact that the mightily-horned male and the daintily-attired females almost seem like they’re different species. With a goat’s gruff and twisted ornamental horns (that may reach over five feet in length), the male markhor is very impressive. They possess light-tan fur with a white underbelly, a dark face, and, for the male, a bunch of shaggy white fur flowing down his front.
Charles Darwin wrote extensively about a phenomenon in nature he referred to as “sexual selection.” The theory of “sexual selection” addresses the question of why so many critters exhibit seemingly useless and garishly-ornamental appendages (such as the male markhor’s spiraling horns). Darwin believed that such ostentatious displays were the result of the myriad evolutionary pressures applied by the female of the species whenever the females made their selection for the best mate. With these horns, the male markhors make quite a show of jousting one another for the attentions of the females. Their mutual charging, locking, twisting, and tossing one another to the ground is a fierce and noisy affair, and the gnarliest male winds up with the affections of the appreciative females.