Wildlife on the Tour du Mont Blanc: top five species

One of the most memorable aspects of a trek around the Tour Du Mont Blanc is the vast array of wildlife you find on the trail. Here’s a list of the top five most iconic species you will hopefully discover on your trip.

Ibex (Capra ibex)

French: Bouquetin, German: Steinbock

Wildlife on the TMB: the ibex
A pair of male Ibex relaxing at the Col De Montets, France. Photo by Simone Van Velzen.

First up on our wildlife list, the ibex is a species of wild goat that lives in the European Alps. Overhunting almost led to its extinction. However, in 1922, government officials established the Gran Paradiso National Park in the Italian Alps to ensure the ibex’s survival. Today there are 3,000 ibex in the Gran Paradiso National Park and around 5,000 individuals in the rest of the Alps, all descending from the protected stock in the Gran Paradiso. Ibex are a common sight on the Tour du Mont Blanc, especially in the Aiguilles Rouges National Park close to Chamonix.

Male vs female: Both males and females have horns, but males have much bigger horns which may exceed one meter. Males weigh 65–130kg, and females weigh 40–60kg.

Distinguishing features: Hikers often confuse the ibex and the chamois; however, a few key indicators make it easier to tell them apart. Horn size is much larger for male ibex and is difficult to mistake for a chamois. For female ibex, the biggest give away is their face — ibex have brown faces, and chamois have black and white faces. If you are too far away to tell them apart, then the habitat is the biggest clue as ibex live at higher altitudes than chamois.

Winter changes in appearance: Coat is dark brown in winter and grey in summer. Ibexes moult completely in spring and can often be seen scratching themselves and rolling around to remove their winter coat.

Distribution: Most of the European Alps, southern Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Bulgaria, and Slovenia.

Habitat: Rocky regions along slow lines above alpine forests, 1800-3300m. In winter, both sexes move to steep rocky slopes that amass little snow, using small caves and overhangs for shelter.

Living arrangement: Ibex live in bachelor groups in herds of 10 – 20 individuals. Male and female herds will only join together during the mating season.

Lifespan: 20 years

Diet: Grass, flowers, twigs and moss.

Mating season: In late autumn, males separate from bachelor herds into smaller groups to seek female herds.

Gestation: Six months – a single kid is born in May.

Predators: Humans

Chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra)

French: Chamois, German: Gämse

Wildlife on the TMB: the chamois
The distinctive black and white face of a chamois photographed below Margunet in the Swiss National Park

Chamois is a species of goat antelope found in the European Alps. This wildlife species is widely hunted, prized for its meat and smooth leather. Chamois are also found in New Zealand (the Southern Alps), having been introduced there in 1907 as a present from the Emperor Franz Josef of Austria. Chamois are a very common sight on the Tour du Mont Blanc.

Male vs female: Males are slightly larger than females, weighing in at 30-60kg compared to 25-45kg.

Distinguishing features: Male and female chamois have short straight horns which hook backwards near the end. Look out for the distinctive white line that runs down the center of a chamois’ face, with black stripes below the eyes. Chamois also have a white rump and a black stripe that runs along its back.

Winter changes in appearance: The fur changes from rich brown to light grey

Distribution: European Alps, Pyrenees, Carpathians, Tatra Mountains, Balkans, parts of Turkey, the Caucasus and the Apennines. Also introduced to South Island of New Zealand.

Habitat: Chamois spend their summers above the tree line in meadows. When winter arrives, they descend to lower elevations, of around 800 m (2,600 ft), to live in forests.

Living arrangements: Females and young live in herds of 15-30. The herd forces out young males when they reach sexual maturity, which then wander on their own until they are around eight years old and can compete with older males for mates.

Lifespan: 15 years.

Diet: Herbs and flowers in summer. Lichens, mosses and young pine shoots in winter. Can survive for up to two weeks without food when snow blankets any sources of sustenance.

Mating season: Late November and early December.

Gestation: 170 days, single kid born in May or June. The mother weans the kid at six months, and it is fully grown by age two.

Predators: humans, lynx and wolves

Alpine Marmot (Marmota marmota)

French: La marmotte des Alpes, German: Das Alpenmurmeltie

Wildlife on the TMB: the alpine marmot
A marmot in the Val dal Botsch in the Swiss National Park

The Alpine Marmot is a large member of the squirrel family found throughout the mountains of central and southern Europe. They are a common sight when out trekking in the French and Swiss Alps, and you will often hear their loud warning call before you see them. Marmots spend nine months a year hibernating, which means they are very busy in summer eating as much as they can to build up their reserves for winter — putting on almost double their body weight! We spotted lots of these cheeky chaps on a Tour Du Mont Blanc trip in September 2017 and found ourselves quite close to a female who was carrying twigs back to her burrow.

Male vs. female: They look very similar to each other, but males are typically larger.

Distinguishing features: A marmot will usually see you before you see it, so its warning cry is the first way you will know a marmot is nearby. No other type of wildlife looks like a marmot in the European Alps, so they are hard to mistake with anything else.

Distribution: European Alps, including France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Slovenia and Austria. They also live in the Pyrenees.

Habitat: Alpine meadows and high-altitude pastures, where they live in burrow systems.

Living arrangements:  Marmots live in a group consisting of several burrows with one dominant breeding pair. They are excellent at digging, and their burrows are very extensive, containing living areas and areas to use for the toilet.

Life span: 15 years in captivity.

Diet: Grasses, herbs, grain, insects, spiders and worms.

Mating season: Spring, right after hibernation.

Gestation: 33 days. Marmots have an average of three babies, which are weaned at 40 days. The mother leaves the burrow to search for food while the baby is being weaned.

Predators: Foxes, wolves, eagles, and humans

Alpine chough (Pyrrhocorax graculus)

French: Chocard à bec jaune, German: Alpendohle

Wildlife on the TMB: the alpine chough
A cheeky alpine chough joins us for lunch on a ski tour in the Chamonix Valley. Photo by David Thexton Photography.

Whilst not endemic to the European Alps, this charismatic member of the crow family is a common sight on the Tour du Mont Blanc, particularly if you are having a picnic! Their sociable and playful nature has led to the local tale that they are the spirits of deceased mountain guides. They are a specialized high-altitude wildlife species that can nest higher than any other type of bird, thanks to adaptations to their egg shells that allow increased oxygen transfer.

Male vs Female: Male and female alpine choughs are identical, but the males are slightly larger.

Distinguishing features: They are very acrobatic in flight, but you can also look out for their short yellow beaks and red legs. You will spot alpine choughs in groups at higher elevations.

Distribution: European Alps, North Africa, Central Asia, and Nepal.

Habitat: Mountainous, high-altitude regions.

Living arrangements: Alpine choughs live in large flocks all year around.

Life span: 25 years

Diet: The alpine chough feeds in flocks on inveterbrates in summer and fruit in winter. They scavenge and are a common site in tourist areas of the Alps.

Mating season: Alpine choughs are monogamous, and their breeding season begins in May. They nest on ledges and in caves and typically lay three to five eggs.

Incubation and fledging: The eggs are incubated for three weeks before hatching and are fledged after 31 days. After fledging, both parents — and sometimes other birds — feed the chicks.

Predators: Peregrine falcon, golden eagle, Eurasian eagle owl.

Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus)

French:  Gypaète barbu, German: lammergeier

Wildlife on the TMB: the bearded vulture
The bearded vulture is the largest bird you will see when trekking in the European Alps.

The bearded vulture is the largest bird you will see when trekking in the European Alps. They weigh up to 8kg and have an impressive wing span of up to 2.83m (9.3ft)! The closest bird in size in the European Alps is the golden eagle, with a wingspan of 2.3m (7.5ft). They are also very sparsely distributed, with mating pairs defending a huge territory of up to 400 square kilometers.

Believing this vulture attacked lambs and young children, humans hunted this bird to the brink of extinction. Luckily, these vultures are now a protected species, and about 100 breeding pairs live around Europe. They’re rare on the Tour du Mont Blanc, and people often misidentify golden eagles as bearded vultures.

Distribution: European Alps, including France, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Slovenia and Germany. They also live in the mountain regions of Africa, Southern Europe and Asia.

Habitat: Mountainous regions above the tree line, they nest in caves and on ledges on steep rock walls.

Living arrangements: Bearded vultures are solitary, and breeding pairs defend huge territories.

Lifespan: 21 years in the wild and up to 45 years in captivity

Diet: The bearded vulture is the only wildlife species known to feed almost exclusively on bone, earning it the nickname ‘bone-eater.’ They pick up larger bones and drop them from a height onto rocky slopes to break them open. Their gastric fluid is strong enough to digest bone, and they can swallow small pieces whole. Young chicks are not capable of digesting bones, so they are fed meat.

Mating season: November and December.

Incubation and fledging: Bearded vultures usually lay two eggs, but the second chick is usually killed by its older sibling within a week of hatching. They incubate for around 60 days; after hatching, the chicks spend 130 days in the nest before fledging.

Threats: Habitat degradation and illegal use of poison for carnivores.

Experience the wildlife of the Alps for yourself!

We run guided Tour du Mont Blanc trips from June to mid-September. Our expert guides will be delighted to teach you about the local wildlife and share the beauty of the French, Swiss, and Italian Alps.

Jennifer Stretton
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