1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Chamois

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CHAMOIS, the Franco-Swiss name of an Alpine ruminant known in the German cantons as Gemse, and to naturalists as Rupicapra tragus or R. rupicapra tragus. It is the only species of its genus, and typifies a subfamily, Rupicaprinae, of hollow-horned ruminants in some degree intermediate between antelopes and goats (see Antelope). About equal in height to a roebuck, and with a short black tail, the chamois is readily distinguishable from all other ruminants by its vertical, backwardly-hooked, black horns, which are common to males and females, although smaller in the latter. Apart from black and white face-markings, and the black tail and dorsal stripe, the prevailing colour of the Alpine chamois is chestnut brown in summer, but lighter and greyer in winter. In the Pyrenees the species is represented by a small race locally known as the izard; a very brightly-coloured form, R. t. picta, inhabits the Apennines; the Carpathian chamois is very dark-coloured, and the one from the Caucasus is the representative of yet another race. A thick under-fur is developed in the winter-coat, as in all other ruminants dwelling at high altitudes. Chamois are gregarious, living in herds of 15 or 20, and feeding generally in the morning or evening. The old males, however, live alone except in the rutting season, which occurs in October, when they join the herds, driving off the younger bucks, and engaging in fierce contests with each other, that often end fatally for one at least of the combatants. The period of gestation is twenty weeks, when the female, beneath the shelter generally of a projecting rock, produces one and sometimes two young. In summer they ascend to the limits of perpetual snow, being only exceeded in the loftiness of their haunts by the ibex; and during that season they show their intolerance of heat by choosing such browsing-grounds as have a northern exposure. In winter they descend to the wooded districts that immediately succeed the region of glaciers, and it is there only they can be successfully hunted. Chamois are exceedingly shy; and their senses, especially those of sight and smell, very acute. The herd never feeds without having a sentinel posted on some prominence to give notice of the approach of danger; which is done by stamping on the ground with the forefeet, and uttering a shrill whistling note, thus putting the entire herd on the alert. No sooner is the object of alarm scented or seen than each one seeks safety in the most inaccessible situations, which are often reached by a series of astounding leaps over crevasses, up the faces of seemingly perpendicular rocks, or down the sides of equally precipitous chasms. The chamois will not hesitate, it is said, thus to leap down 20 or even 30 ft., and this it effects with apparent ease by throwing itself forward diagonally and striking its feet several times in its descent against the face of the rock. Chamois-shooting is most successfully pursued when a number of hunters form a circle round a favourite feeding ground, which they gradually narrow; the animals, scenting the hunters to windward, fly in the opposite direction, only to encounter those coming from leeward. Chamois-hunting, in spite of, or perhaps owing to the great danger attending it, has always been a favourite pursuit among the hardy mountaineers of Switzerland and Tirol, as well as of the amateur sportsmen of all countries, with the result that the animal is now comparatively rare in many districts where it was formerly common. Chamois feed in summer on mountain-herbs and flowers, and in winter chiefly on the young shoots and buds of fir and pine trees. They are particularly fond of salt, and in the Alps sandstone rocks containing a saline impregnation are often met with hollowed by the constant licking of these creatures. The skin of the chamois is very soft; made into leather it was the original shammy, which is now made, however, from the skins of many other animals. The flesh is prized as venison. (R. L.*)