Alpine Ibex are big mountain goats that live among the peaks in the European Alps where predators cannot reach. They occupy the steep, rocky terrain above the tree line between two to three thousand meters above sea level. But they can’t live there at all times, because there is no food up there. During spring and summer, the Ibex live among the conifers and the meadows where there are plenty of grass to feed. Before the first snow falls, the Ibex has to fatten up and build reserves to help see them through the Alpine winters. Once winter arrives, the Ibex retreats to the safety of their homes in the clouds.
Like many herbivores, the Alpine Ibex lacks salt and other essential minerals in their diet which they can’t get from grass. So the Ibex has to seek out natural salt licks. In springtime, when salt requirements are the highest, the Ibex can be seen licking rock surfaces for leached salts.
Dam walls are another precious source of salts and minerals. Dams are composed of concrete, and concrete releases a calcium-aluminium mineral called ettringite as part of the curing process. Up to twenty percent of hardened concrete is composed of ettringite.
Only the Alpine Ibex can exploit this resource. Being excellent climbers, the Ibex will climb the sheer vertical face of the dam’s wall using the small protruding boulders as foothold to lick ettringite off the wall’s surface. The Ibex can scale such great heights because of their soft, split hooves that can grip any surface like a pincer.
The Cingino Dam in northern Italy, not far from the Swiss border, is one place where you can observe the Alpine Ibex’s gravity-defying stunts—but it’s not the only place. This behavior has also been observed at the Barbellino dam in Lombardy, and Lago della Rossa dam in Valli di Lanzo, Piemonte.