The mountains are a challenging environment, with steep cliffs and barren rocks, sparse vegetation and extremes of temperature. And yet they are home to many species of animal and bird, which are well adapted to survive there.
Winter is an especially difficult time, as food becomes scarce, and the snow makes it harder to move around. At that time of year, the most important thing is to save energy. So many animals reduce their activity to the bare minimum: looking for food. The remainder of the time they simply stay still – or in the most extreme case, like the marmot, they hibernate.
Every adaptation has its advantages and disadvantages. For example, many animals and birds change colour – but what colour is best? White blends in with the snow and offers protection from predators; on the other hand dark colours conserve heat.
For some people, the chamois is first and foremost the source of soft leather used for polishing cars, but the Swiss have hunted it since long before the days of the combustion engine. Even its position in Swiss folklore, where it often appears under the special protection of the local mountain spirit, didn't help it. By the middle of the 19th century numbers had fallen seriously, and it could have faced extinction had it not been for the introduction of a law regulating hunting in 1875. The chamois is still hunted, but within set limits: federal hunting statistics indicate that hunters shot just over 16,500 chamois in 2000.
It is not only human hunters that the chamois have to fear. With the recent reintroduction of the lynx to Switzerland, they have acquired a new enemy, although the number of lynx is still very small. They are also threatened by quite a different danger, a form of conjunctivitis, whose cause is unknown, but which leads to temporary blindness. Before it can recover, the animal will almost certainly starve to death or fall off a cliff. This illness has been a cause of concern in Switzerland in recent years.
The total population is currently estimated at about 95,000, living in both the Alps and the Jura. They can be seen either singly or in herds, often bounding from rock to rock with impressive agility and speed.
A fully grown male reaches up to 1.3 metres (4.3 feet) in length, and an adult male may weigh 50kg (110lb). The animal is unmistakable: its horns, which are about 17cm (7 inches) long, bend back into a hook at the end, and there are two dark stripes running down the face. It also has a kind of mane, familiarly called a beard, on its back, which reaches a length of 15–20cm (6–8 inches) in winter. The chamois can make the hairs of this mane stick up, which makes the animal appear bigger and gives it an advantage in social interaction. Unfortunately they gave it a disadvantage in encounters with huntsmen, who liked to shoot them and put the “beard” in their hats.
The ibex was greatly prized in former times for its medicinal powers: almost all its body parts, and even its dung, were in demand for traditional cures for all manner of diseases. It paid the price: it was hunted to extinction in the first half of the 19th century. The canton of Graubünden had practically wiped it out as far back as the 17th century – an ironic fate for the animal which features on the cantonal coat of arms and those of several of its communes.
Graubünden was the first canton to get the ibex back. It was reintroduced to the Swiss National Park there between 1920 and 1934, and those now living in the park are all descendents of the animals released then. Other herds live in cantons Valais and Bern. In total there are some 15,000 animals in different parts of Switzerland.
The male can weigh up to 100kg (220lb), and stands up to one meter (over three feet) high at the shoulder. It has two large curved horns with horizontal ridges. The age of the animal can be determined by the number of ridges: in general it grows two ridges in one year. The horns can grow up to one meter in length and weigh more than 10kg (22lb).
The ibex, which usually lives above the tree line, has hooves well adapted to its habitat: they have a hard rim surrounding a soft inner part, enabling it to grip the rock and gain a good foothold even in the steepest places. Its back legs are longer than the front ones. Perhaps surprisingly for such a large animal, the ibex is a good jumper, able to leap several meters upwards and forwards from a standing position.
The ibex is unpopular with foresters, since they not only eat saplings, but use slightly bigger trees to rub their horns against, often with fatal consequences for the tree. This is all the more serious since some reforesting projects are designed as avalanche defence.
Marmots are easily seen in the Swiss mountains in the summer. And they are heard even more often than they are seen, since they emit piercing alarm calls when danger threatens.
They live in family groups of up to 15 members, making their labyrinthine burrows in open meadows. When they emerge to feed – on grasses and other plants – one of them always stands guard. Their predators are both birds of prey and animals like foxes. When the look-out whistles, every marmot in the group instantly dives underground for safety.
Since they hibernate for about six months, they have to spend a lot of time feeding to stock up their fat reserves during summer and autumn. They can double their weight to 8kg during the feeding season. During hibernation their body temperature drops to about 5 degrees Celsius (41 Fahrenheit). They wake as the snow is thawing.
Originally marmots were found only in the Alps, but have been introduced in a few places in the Jura as well.
The adaptations which this animal has developed to cope with its high-altitude habitat have given it two places in the record books. Not only is it the only European amphibian to give birth to live young (usually two of them), but in the case of animals living above 1,400 meters (4,600 feet), they may remain inside the mother for three years – a far longer gestation period than even the elephant, which takes up to 760 days.
The advantage to the salamander from this adaptation is that the offspring are protected from predators and also from the danger faced by tadpoles of having their pond frozen or dried out.
The Alpine salamander lives in damp places, such as mountain forests, up to heights of 3000 meters (nearly 10,000 feet). It is completely black and grows to a length of 16cm (about 6 inches). It feeds mainly off beetles, spiders and centipedes. In another adaptation to its habitat, it often hibernates en masse.