Pyrenean Ibex: The Extinct Spanish Wild Goat That Scientists Tried to Clone

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Updated on: Educator Review By: Michelle Connolly

In January 2000, the last Pyrenean ibex, which was a Spanish wild goat, died, marking the end of a subspecies. Three years later, in July 2003, scientists tried to clone this beautiful wild goat using tissue samples taken from her ear prior to her death. At first, they thought they had succeeded. However, the cloned baby ibex died only a few minutes after she was born.

We are going on with our series of articles in which we discuss animals that disappeared from the face of the Earth in the last 400 years. In our previous stories, we discussed the dodo bird, which went extinct in the mid-17th century. We also discussed the quagga, which was a subspecies of the zebra and died out in the late 19th century.

In today’s article, we will study another unique extinct animal, the Pyrenean ibex. Besides being wonderful in and of itself as a species, the Pyrenean ibex was even more distinct because it was the first extinct species that scientists cloned in an attempt to bring it back from extinction.

So what exactly is the story of this Pyrenean ibex?

Well, let’s find out.

Pyrenean mountain goat
Pyrenean mountain goat sculpture in Benasque

Pyrenean ibex

To know what the Pyrenean ibex is, we need to trace back its lineage.

In the taxonomy hierarchy, which is used to classify organisms, there are eight levels. The broadest one is the domain, and the narrowest one is the species. Between these two ranks, there are six other ranks. The one right above the species is the genus.

There is an incredible number of genera, plural of genus, that classify all the different organisms. One of them includes all the goats found on Earth.

Goats are either domestic or wild. Domestic goats are tamed by humans, who typically use them for farm work and take advantage of their fur, meat, and milk. On the other hand, wild goats are those that, yes, live in the wild, are not used by humans, nor do they depend on humans for survival.

On Earth, there are six species of wild goats. One of them is the Spanish ibex or Iberian ibex, as it is native to the Iberian Peninsula in Spain. The Iberian ibex is further classified into four subspecies. They possess many similarities, but they are clearly different from one another as well.

Two of the Iberian ibex subspecies are alive and thriving, while the remaining two already went extinct. One of those extinct subspecies of the Iberian ibex is the Pyrenean ibex, which is the wild goat we are concerned about today.


Native to the Pyrenees Mountain Range that is shared between Spain and France, the Pyrenean ibex was very distinct and looked quite as attractive as a deer thanks to its super long, sharp, heavy, and curved horns.

These horns were the ibex’s most prominent feature. They used to grow year after year, and that was mainly affected by the environment.

The Pyrenean ibex’s body was covered with hair whose length changed based on the season. For instance, the hair was short in summer to allow the ibex to bear the hot weather. On the other hand, in winter, the hair grew longer and thicker to help the body stay warm.

Males and females were so easy to tell apart, for they possessed different characteristics related to the hair length and colour as well as the shape of the horns. Interestingly, both males and females changed their hair colour in summer and winter.

For instance, during summer, males’ hair used to have a light grey-brownish colour with little black spots. They also had a black mane, and some parts of their legs and forehead were back too. In winter, the hair turned light grey, and the black spots disappeared.

On the other hand, females were all brown during summer with no black areas whatsoever. During winter, the female’s brown colour faded away. 

Speaking of offspring, whether they happened to be males or females, they had the same brown colour as their mother but only during their first year. After that, their hair colour changed accordingly.

Another difference that could be spotted between males and females was the horns. In males, horns were large and thick. They also curved in different directions throughout the life of the male. Horns had ridges which were believed to refer to the age of the male since their number increased by one each year.

In females, horns were more like a cylinder and were relatively short too.


Many animals migrate during winter to other warmer places where food is abundant. 

The Pyrenean ibex, however, migrated to breed.

Male and female Pyrenean ibexes were mature enough to mate and start a family at the age of 3 and 1.5 years, respectively. Once winter hit, Pyrenean ibexes used to leave their habitat for the mountains looking for a potential partner.

Many males had to fight with one another to win the heart of the female they liked. They used to hit each other with their horns and whoever won the fight got to mate with the chosen one.

A female Pyrenean ibex would stay pregnant for around 180 days. At some point in her pregnancy, she would leave her partner to look for a more isolated area to give birth in. Typically she gave birth to one to three babies, usually in May.

Pyrenean ibexes used to live in two groups, male-only and mothers with offspring. Male-only groups were occupied by solitary males outside of the breeding season. On the other hand, mothers were joined together with their babies to form a group.

Interestingly if a mother already had kids less than one year old and she gave birth to other babies, her first babies used to leave the group. If they were males, they would leave the group permanently and join a male-only group. If they were females, they would also leave their mother’s group temporarily. After that, those female offspring returned to live with their mothers for a few more years.


The Pyrenean ibex was a herbivore. It mainly fed on plants.

And herbivores are two types, grazers and browsers. Grazers lay down to eat the grass when browsers lift their heads to eat tree leaves. Well, the Pyrenean ibex was a mix between these two, and that depended on what food was available in its habitat.

When food is abundant, the Pyrenean ibex feeds a lot, especially to get ready for the winter. Surprisingly, its kidney used to store fat to support the body when food was scarce during the winter season.


Scientists estimate the population of the Pyrenean ibex to have been 50000 individuals, scattered in about 50 subgroups which lived in different areas in France, Portugal, Spain, and Andorra.

Already adapted to the mountains, the Pyrenean ibex lived at three different elevations, either 2240 m, 1200 m or as low as 350 m.

The nature of these mountains was very harsh, full of rocks and cliffs. However, the Pyrenean ibex was designed to survive in these places. Thanks to its strong legs, it could jump, move quickly and swiftly, and ascend and descend the mountains, just like deer.


Unlike many animals whose cause of extinction is certain, scientists are not sure about what caused the Pyrenean ibex to go extinct. How could a species that thrived for thousands of years disappear in a very short amount of time?

Though their numbers were relatively high, the population of the Pyrenean ibex started to shrink at the beginning of the 19th century. In the early 20th century, only 100 individuals were left in the wild. This number then dropped to 40 and never increased again.

Sadly in January 2000, the last female Pyrenean ibex was killed by a fallen tree, and with that, the Pyrenean ibex was officially extinct.

So how could this possibly happen?

Well, scientists proposed several theories for why the Pyrenean ibex disappeared. One of them relates to competition with other animals over food. But another reason that seems to bear more weight is overhunting by humans.

Humans have hunted wild goats for meat, fur, horns, and other body parts ever since they came across them for the first time. 

During the 19th and 20th centuries, overhunting took place, and the population of the Pyrenean ibex started to drop significantly. At the same time, the Pyrenean ibex was facing competition with domesticated animals, such as sheep, goats, horses, and kettle, which used to forage in the same habitat as the Pyrenean ibex.

As authorities finally paid attention to the Pyrenean ibex’s rarity, they attempted to protect it from extinction by keeping it captive in a national park in Northern Spain. Yet, this, along with other pathetic conservation efforts, could not stop the species from heading to extinction.

When the last female individual died in January 2000, the species was announced extinct. But before this happened, and as scientists were sure there was nothing they could do to stop the Pyrenean ibex from disappearing, they thought of something that may help bring the ibex back. And this is what is known as the cloning project.


According to the dictionary, cloning is the creation of an identical copy of something.

Cloning can happen naturally or artificially. It occurs naturally when two identical twins are born. They are the exact same thing. 

Theoretically speaking, scientists can clone genes, cells, or even creatures using their DNA.

Every organism has unique DNA. This DNA is what decides what the organism will look like when born and how it will operate afterwards. DNAs do not repeat. In other words, you will not find two organisms having the same DNA unless they happen to be identical twins.

So the idea is to get the same DNA of something in order to create an identical copy of it. And this is what scientists tried to do with the last living Pyrenean ibex.

A year before she died, scientists took skin from the ibex’s ears and preserved it with nitrogen. When she died, they thought of using these skin tissues in order to create an identical copy of her. If such an attempt succeeded, they hoped, they may be able to bring back the species from extinction.

Yet, they were way too dreamy, unfortunately. 

The idea of inverting the extinction of the Pyrenean ibex was impossible. First of all, they only had the tissues of a female ibex. Even if they succeeded in creating an identical copy of her, how would they then breed it to form a population since there were no males?

To fix this problem, they thought of breeding this yet-to-be-cloned female with a male from another subspecies. Still, this means that the offspring will not be entirely a Pyrenean ibex. 

Anyways, they decided to focus on the first step first. So three and a half years after the last Pyrenean ibex died, scientists cloned an identical version of this female. However, they were as unlucky as to have the clone die only a few minutes after birth due to some problems in her lungs.

And the whole dream of reviving the Pyrenean ibex vanished, at least for some time.


And here we get to the end of this hopefully interesting episode about another extinct animal that disappeared in the 20th century.

In this article, we discussed the Pyrenean ibex, which was a subspecies of the wild goat Iberian ibex. It lived in the mountains of Spain, France, and Portugal and was distinct for its fit body, beautiful fur that changed colour and length all year long, as well as its super long, curved, sharp horns.

Then we learned some information about the Pyrenean ibex’s feeding and breeding habits. We explored its habitat and understood how its body was designed to survive in harsh environments.

After that, we looked into the factors that caused the Pyrenean ibex to go extinct. From competition with farm animals that foraged in its habitat to overhunting by humans, the numbers of the Pyrenean ibex dropped rapidly over the course of a century, with the last individual dying in 2000.

Finally, we discussed the Cloning Project, which hoped to bring back the Pyrenean ibex. By using skin tissue taken from the ear of the last Pyrenean ibex, scientists tried to clone it. Though the cloned Pyrenean ibex was born in July 2003, it died only a few minutes later and took with her the de-extinction dream.

We hope you found this article interesting as much as we loved writing it for you. You can learn more about our ecosystem here on our website so make sure you browse the World Around Us and STEM pages.

If you enjoyed learning about this facinating animal why not check out more fantastic facts about other animals: Koalas, Land Animals, Sharks, Raccoons, Moon and Sun Bears, Rats, Sheep, Chickens, Cats, Pandas, Monkeys and Whales.

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