Discovery: Something strange is happening on the Isle of Rum in Scotland. The wild goats in this nature preserve usually struggle to survive in the north. Now they’re poised to take over.
Normally the goats on the island find themselves up against short daylight hours, cold temperatures, and increasingly poor quality vegetation to eat, Harriet Jarlett reported in Planet Earth Online. Warming temperatures at higher latitudes appear to be making life a bit easier for the goats, which are starting to thrive there.
The feral goat population and its changing habitat was documented by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar from the University of Oxford and his colleague Jianbin Shi. They published their findings in the ecology and biology journal Oikos (abstract).
Why should humans care if Scotland turns into Florida for wild goats? Setting aside human responsibility for a second, an exploding goat population could wreak havoc. Look at what happened on the Galapagos Islands. Humans brought goats there in the 1920s through the 1940s and they took to them like crazy kids on drugs. They ate everything in sight, threatened rare plants and animals, and caused erosion.
Eradicating the pervasive Galapagos goats required killer teams flying around in helicopters, radio collar tracking, and chemical sterilization, as described in a Nature article from 2009 about the endeavor.
Dunbar told Planet Earth Online that he doesn’t think the goats in the UK will ever get that bad, though. He pointed out that when the goat population is well managed, the ruminating beasts can actually help keep the landscape in check. It’s all a delicate balance. Fortunately now we have more to chew on.
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