Dec. 12 (UPI) -- To cool off in the summer, mountain goats rely on patches of snow. New research suggests these increasingly rare sources of air conditioning are the only places where mountain goats in Montana's Glacier National Park can successfully slow their respiration, conserve energy and regulate their body temperature during heat spells.
Over the last century, Glacier National Park's ice reserves have been slowly shrinking. Every summer, fewer and fewer snow patches survive the summer. In 1910, the park boasted more than 100 glaciers. Today, only a few dozen are big enough to qualify as a glacier.
To better understand how mountain goats will be impacted by the dwindling supplies of snow and ice, scientists observed the animals on particularly hot summer days. The scientists found mountain goats sought out snow when temperatures rose. Once on the snow, the breathing rates of the mountain goats was reduced by 15 percent.
Many animals slow their respiration while resting in the shade. Coyotes or marmots seek shelter in dens in order to stabilize their metabolic rates. Mountain goats don't have access to much shade, and researchers found mountain goats resting in what little shade is found above the treeline did not have slower breathing rates.
"Ten thousand years ago when the North American climate was cooler there were mountain goats in Grand Canyon, but certainly increasing temperatures and drier weather ultimately contributed to their extinction in that area," study author Wesley Sarmento, of the University of Montana, said in a news release.
Animals that have adapted to unique habitats, even high-elevation habitats often thought of as immune to rising temperatures, are especially vulnerable to climate change. The latest findings -- published this week in the journal PLOS One -- suggest mountain goats are likely to face a precarious future if global temperatures continue to rise.
"This work is important to shed light on the impacts of a changing climate on these iconic animals and their habitat," said Mark Biel of Glacier National Park. "How certain species may adapt as the changes continue is critical in understanding their persistence on the landscape into the future."