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The chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra) is a goat-antelope species native to mountains in Europe, including the Carpathian Mountains of Romania, the Pyrenees, the European Alps, the Tatra Mountains, the Balkans, parts of Turkey, and the Caucasus. The chamois has also been introduced to the South Island of New Zealand. Some subspecies of chamois are strictly protected in the EU under the European Habitats Directive.
The English name comes from French chamois. This is derived from Gaulish camox (attested in Latin, 5th century), itself perhaps a borrowing from some Alpine language (Raetic, Ligurian). The Gaulish form also underlies German Gemse, Gams, Gämse and Italian Camoscio.
The usual pronunciation for the animal is UK // or US //, approximating the French pronunciation [ʃaˈmwa]. However when referring to chamois leather, and in New Zealand often for the animal itself, it is //, and sometimes spelt "shammy" or "chamy". The plural of "chamois" is spelled the same as the singular, and it may be pronounced with the final "s" sounded: //, //, //. However, as with many other quarry species, the plural for the animal is often pronounced the same as the singular.
The Dutch name for the chamois is gems, and the male is called a gemsbok. In Afrikaans, the name "gemsbok" came to refer to a species of Subsaharan antelope of the genus Oryx, and this meaning of "gemsbok" has been adopted into English.
There are two species of chamois in the genus Rupicapra: R. rupicapra and R. pyrenaica, which occurs in the Pyrenees (R. p. pyrenaica), Cantabrian mountains (R. p. parva, Cantabrian Chamois), and the Apennines (R. p. ornata). The chamois (along with sheep and goats) are in the goat-antelope subfamily (Caprinae) of the family Bovidae.
The chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra) is categorized into several subspecies:
- R. r. rupicapra (Alpine chamois): Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Slovenia, Slovakia (Veľká Fatra, Slovak Paradise)
- R. r. tatrica (Tatra chamois): Slovakia (Tatras and Low Tatras) and Poland (Tatras)
- R. r. balcanica (Balkan chamois): Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, northern Greece (The Pindus Mountains), Republic of Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Slovenia (isolated populations)
- R. r. carpatica (Carpathian chamois): Romania
- R. r. cartusiana (Chartreuse chamois): France
- R. r. asiatica (Anatolian chamois or Turkish chamois): Turkey
- R. r. caucasica (Caucasian chamois): Azerbaijan, Georgia, Russian Federation
The chamois is a mid-sized bovid. A fully grown chamois reaches a height of 70–80 cm (28–31 in) and measures 107–137 cm (42–54 in) (the tail is not generally visible except when defecating). Males, which weigh 30–60 kg (66–132 lb), are slightly larger than females, which weigh 25–45 kg (55–99 lb). Both males and females have short, straightish horns which are hooked backwards near the tip, the horn of the male being thicker. In summer, the fur has a rich brown colour which turns to a light grey in winter. Distinct characteristics are white contrasting marks on the sides of the head with pronounced black stripes below the eyes, a white rump and a black stripe along the back.
Biology and behaviour
Female chamois and their young live in herds of up to 100 individuals; adult males tend to live solitarily for most of the year. During the rut (late November/early December in Europe, May in New Zealand), males engage in fierce battles for the attention of unmated females. An impregnated female undergoes a gestation period of 170 days, after which a single kid is born in May or early June, although rarely twins may be born. If a mother is killed, other females in the herd may try to raise them. The kid is weaned at 6 months of age and is fully grown by 1 year of age. However, the kids do not reach sexual maturity until they are 3 to 4 years old, although some females may mate at as early 2 years old. At sexual maturity, young males are forced out of their mother's herds by dominant males (who sometimes kill them), and then wander somewhat nomadically until they can establish themselves as mature breeding specimens at 8 to 9 years of age.
Chamois eat various types of vegetation, including highland grasses and herbs during the summer and conifers, barks and needles from trees in winter. Primarily diurnal in activity, they often rest around mid-day and may actively forage during moonlit nights.
Chamois can reach an age of 22 years in captivity, although the maximum recorded in the wild is from 15 to 17 years of age. Common causes of mortality can include avalanches, epidemics and predation. The main predators of Chamois are Eurasian lynxes and gray wolves, although a few may predated by brown bears and golden eagles as well. The main predator of chamois now are humans. Chamois usually use speed and stealthy evasion to escape predators and can run at 50 kilometers per hour (31 mph) and can jump 2 m (6.6 ft) vertically into the air or over a distance of 6 m (20 ft).
Distribution and habitat
Chamois are naturally distributed in the Pyrenees, the mountains of south and central Europe, Turkey, and the Caucasus in Asia. They live at moderately high altitudes and are adapted to living in precipitous, rugged, rocky terrain. They can be found at elevations of at least 3,600 m (11,800 ft). In Europe, Chamois spend their summers above the tree line in meadows. When winter rolls around, they go to lower elevations, of around 800 m (2,600 ft), to live in forests, mainly in areas dominated by pines.
Chamois in New Zealand
Alpine chamois arrived in New Zealand in 1907 as a gift from the Austrian Emperor, Franz Joseph I. The first surviving releases were made in the Aoraki/Mount Cook region and these animals gradually spread over much of the South Island.
New Zealand chamois tend to weigh about 20% less than European individuals of the same age, suggesting that food supplies may be limited.
Hunting and wildlife management
As their meat is considered tasty, chamois are popular game animals. Chamois have two traits that are exploited by hunters. The first is that they are most active in the morning and evening when they feed. The second trait is that chamois tend to look for danger from below. This means that a hunter stalking chamois from above is less likely to be observed and more likely to be successful.
The tuft of hair from the back of the neck, the gamsbart (chamois "beard"), is traditionally worn as a decoration on hats throughout the alpine countries.
Chamois leather, traditionally made from the hide of the chamois, is very smooth and absorbent and is favoured in cleaning, buffing, and polishing because it produces no scratching. Modern chamois leather may be made from chamois hides, but hides of deer or domestic goats or sheep are commonly used, and cotton flannel can be used as a fake-chamois fabric, with similar qualities.
- Aulagnier, S., Giannatos, G. & Herrero, J. (2008). Rupicapra rupicapra. In: IUCN 2008. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Retrieved 5 April 2009. Database entry includes a brief justification of why this species is of least concern.
- Council Directive 92/43/EEC of 21 May 1992 on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora at EUR-Lex
- Mineral Supply and Fertility of Chamois
- Current status of the Balkan chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra balcanica) in Greece : Implications for conservation at Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences
- Macdonald, D.W.; Barrett , P. (1993). Mammals of Europe. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-09160-9.
- A Note on the Chamois in New Zealand at New Zealand Ecological Society
- Recreational hunting in Nelson/Marlborough - Chamois at the Department of Conservation
- Heritage Preservation (p. 40 and 45) at the Department of Conservation
- Chamois in New Zealand at NZ Hunting Info
- - A Guide for the Fit young Novice at NZ Hunting Info