When you hear the term ‘Big Five’ you think of big, strong and perhaps even dangerous animals. However, our first alpine inhabitant - the marmot – proves that size does not matter. It can only be found in summer because it hibernates for about seven months of the year. When it's hot, marmots prefer to stay in their underground tunnels, which are up to three metres below ground. Due to the warmer climate, they reside at loftier altitudes between 900 and 2,500 metres. They greet one another by rubbing their noses together. Marmots can communicate with a cry produced in the larynx, which sounds like a whistle to us humans. So listen for this sound on your next hike, for example Around Zugspitze, because a marmot may not be far away.
Our next Alpine inhabitant is a particularly good climber, the chamois. Their special hooves and rubber-like soles enable these spritely little animals to climb up rockfaces and even jump up them. They live at between 1,000 and 3,500 metres, depending on the temperature. They have a life expectancy of between 15 and 22 years. They eat a vegetarian diet and are considered shy, they warn each other with a loud whistle in emergencies. In the summer months their fur is reddish brown, in winter dark brown to black. Especially typical for chamois are their horns, which can grow up to 32 cm long. Chamois live in the Alpine region in Bavaria, Austria and Switzerland.
The golden eagle
Our next inhabitant is at home in the high altitudes of the Alps – the golden eagle, also known as the ‘King of the Skies’. With a wingspan of around two metres, it is the biggest native bird of prey. The golden eagle is particularly well known for its curved, dark grey beak. The life expectancy is 20 years. When hiking in the high mountains, one can observe the majestic circling of the golden eagle with a little luck over rocky terrain, as they can use the thermals in this area for soaring. In the warmer seasons the eagle lives in higher areas, in winter they are also found in lower-lying areas. In Germany, for example, the bird can now only be found in the Bavarian Alps, while in the Austrian Alps the golden eagle can be seen, with a bit of luck, in the Hohe Tauern or the Karwendel Mountains, among others.
Another good climber and ‘King of the Alps’ is the Ibex. Almost wiped out, the population of the Ibex was able to recover somewhat by the end of the 19th century. Today, around 50,000 ibex live in the entire area of the Alps. These herding animals are primarily found above the tree line at an altitude of up to 3,500 metres. Ridge edges and rock faces are their habitat, where they move around skilfully. The distinctive horns of the male animals weigh up to ten kilos and grow to about one metre in length. Ibex are at home in Austria, southern Germany, Italy, Switzerland and France, for example in the Mercantour National Park, and are mainly on the move in the early hours of the morning.
The alpine- and fire salamander
The last animals in the ‘Big Five of the Alps’ is the alpine and fire salamander. This animal is seldom seen. With a little lick you could see the fire salamander close to the valley after rainy weather, by lakes or rivers, whereas the alpine salamander can only be found at altitudes of around 1,000 metres. You can tell the animals apart by sight: the fire salamander is black with bright yellow specks. The alpine salamander stands out with its small body and is pure black. Both can grow up to 15 cm long. The animals are active between the months of April and October, the rest of the year they remain underground in hibernation. Perhaps you will be lucky and discover an alpine or fire salamander while hiking by rivers and lakes.
Watch the alpine inhabitants while hiking
In the alpine world you can quickly forget your everyday life. Many hikers are drawn to this habitat to enjoy the beautiful natural landscapes, to experience a soothing time-out and to explore the special features of the respective region. This includes not only the culinary specialities, the beautiful hiking paths and accommodation typical of the country – observing the wildlife also plays an important role when hiking in nature. The alps have a particularly sensitive eco-system and many animals are sensitive to disturbances. Whether on an individual hiking tour, while hiking with children or on a hiking holiday with a dog – the animal inhabitants should absolutely be given the necessary peace and quiet and an appropriate escape distance. With binoculars and a bit of patience you can get a glimpse of the animal life even from a distance without disturbing them in their natural habitat. After all, this unique habitat should be preserved for a long time to ensure the survival of these wonderful animals.
- You can read even more about hiking in the Alps here.