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Archive for the ‘carnivores’ Category

dead cows

What is about cattle that makes take this risk? When the storm clouds appear on the horizon on hot summer days, so many of them will high-tail it to the shade of the trees in their pastures. And then, with luck, the lightning bolts don’t come dropping down on the great wooden rods and electrocute some free standing beef. It doesn’t always happen. It doesn’t happen most of the time, but it does happen often enough.

On this hillside farm in rural West Virginia, two crossbred black Angus cattle and their black baldie associate played the wrong game. On this sultry July evening, the thunder bolts filled the sky and rumbled and roared, and all the beef cattle on the pasture came racing for the great red oaks that stand tall and wiry against wind.

For thirty minutes they stood under the trees, nervous a bit of the great roaring but feeling secure in the shade.

Then suddenly it was all lightness and burning.  A bolt had descended near enough the tree to catch its branches, and three cattle were instantly electrocuted there in the oak lot.

The storm had come on a Friday, and it just so happened that the farmer who tends these cattle was at hand. He lives many miles away, working in that part of West Virginia that abuts both the Blue Ridge and the Washington, D.C., Beltway.  He comes back to tend his late father’s holdings in the rugged land of the Allegheny Plateau, visiting the herds once a month or so, usually less often in warmer months of summer.

When he arrived upon the macabre scene, his heart sank. Three dead beef cattle, all “black Angus” in ancestry, all valuable animals, all cows in calf. Thousands of dollars were wiped away in a single thunderbolt.

He didn’t know what to do next. The warm night and rapidly heating morning had made their carcasses fully putrid, and the only thing he could do is find some way to get rid of them.

The best he could was to go out with the tractor and drag their bodies out of the pasture. He knew he had to get on with the job quickly, for it wouldn’t be long before their  paunches began to fill with gas of decay and then exploded green nastiness all over.  He had to move them quickly and gently, a tough task for man dragging great gassy beasts over rocky ground with a rickety old John Deere.

He dragged them to the far end of the pasture, then down a logging road that followed the course of the ridge-line until it dropped off into a steep hollow. It was near that drop-off that the absentee farmer unhitched the deceased and cast them down with a few hard heaves of his shoulders to get them started.

The first cow rolled down the steep wall of the hollow and came to a crashing stop about a hundred feet below. The trunks of two old tulip trees caught her back and sides, and she was left hanging beneath them, paunch sticking up towards the sky. She had not had an explosion of the death gases, but she would continue to rot away and stink until she  did.

The second and third cows made their final descents in much the same manner. The second got caught at the base of a stately beech, and the third, the black baldie, landed in the same stand of tulip trees where the first had fallen. It got caught in much the same way, except that one of the catching trees held up her head at an odd angle. Her final repose was to have her head perched up and facing the hollow, where the gentle breezes from the creek-bed below would come wafting up after a summer rain. If she had been alive, she would have felt these cool breezes, and they would have pushed off the biting flies that would have festooned eyes almost as much with her alive as they did now as she soured in death’s decay.

The farmer wiped the sweat from his head. He’d done a good job this morning. His dad would be proud of him. His hands smelled of putrid death.  In the sky above him, a big flow of turkey vultures coursed the sky. They would be eating well for a few weeks.

If this farmer had been a little more experienced, a little bit more savvy about the natural history of his land, he wouldn’t have cast these carcasses off so near to where he let his brood cows graze.

His father would have easily gotten away with dumping some cattle off that logging road into the hollow, for when his father farmed this land, the only scavengers were turkey vultures, crows, ravens, and red foxes. Crows rob the corn, but they can be shot. And the neighbors ran the red fox with hounds every night in winter, and they feared man above all else. It was very rare for them to raid hen houses. The crack of guns fired from bedroom windows was that terrifying for them.

But now the land had been left alone, and the forest came to fill in the pastures of all the neighbors. Big bands of white-tailed deer came moseying in during the dusk and dawn hours to graze the cattle’s grass. And big flocks of wild turkey would come in and peck at the winter silage.

The farmer hunted all these animals, but his father barely knew them. Both wild turkeys and deer were rare when he ran cattle and sheep on this land, and it was only in his later years that he ever got enough mastery of the deer to be considered a proficient hunter.

His son, by contrast, had dropped many big bucks on this land.  And he was starting to the turkey hunting bug.

Indeed, he wasn’t so much a farmer, but a hunter with a private estate that happened to manage with a small herd of beef cattle. The cattle kept the pastures open, as did their hayfield, and the deer and turkeys relished the open grasslands for their forage.

But in those years in which the turkey and deer numbers grew, something else had happened.

The red foxes rarely whistle-barked on the ridge pastures these days, and it had become rare to see one.

What replaced the whistle-barks was cry of banshees, the barking cacophony of coyote howls.

The coyotes had come into the land and set up shop in the forest. They drove out all the red foxes as poaching interlopers, and those that didn’t get the message often wound up dead.

The coyotes were reviled by every hunter and herdsman from one side of the Alleghenies to the other.

But the farmer never saw them on his land. He didn’t have a coyote problem. He never heard them howl either. He’d heard tales of coyotes around, and he promised that if he’d ever see one during deer season, he’d blast it away. But he’d never seen or heard one. They didn’t exist. If he heard a howl in the evening’s last light, he’d justify it as a yapping dog or an ambulance siren screaming down the distance highway.

Of course, the neighbors up the road had a pear and apple orchard, and already, they had seen packs of coyotes come through and eat the fallen fruit. Early season apples were a delicacy. One afternoon just before the thunderstorm, the neighbor had counted eleven coyotes in his orchard, all munching away at the fallen fruit. He’d wanted to get a gun, but he was so impressed by their multitude that he left them alone.

By mid-July, the packs had settled into their denning sites. Of those eleven in the orchard,  only five laid claim to the lands that included the stinking bovines in the hollow.

One was a pack of three: a big buff-colored dog with a nick out of his left ear, a veteran of many fights with interlopers and even stupid-ass dogs; a black female, his mate; and a dark gray daughter from last year’s litter.

The mother of the dark gray had been taken by a foothold trap left at the edge of a big meadow where voles were thick, dumb, and juicy.  She’d come sniffing along a hole dug in the hillside along main game trail leading out of the meadow, and when she went to inspect it, she was caught.  She tried to free herself, but the whole band moved on. In the night came the running quad-bike, and a rifle shot rang out over the meadow.

The buff male needed a new mate, and when he came across the little black bitch during the winter, he was pleased as punch to have her. His daughter, the dark gray, became her subordinate, and this spring, she had been her nurse-maid to four yelping pups. Three were black like their mother, and the other was reddish brown like his father.

In the July heat, they had pups to feed. The buff male and the black bitch had lifted many fawns from their coverts all through the late spring, but now the fawns were sprightly, and the does were now much more attuned to their game.

This was a time of hunger, of needing meat to sate the little ones, and simply not having any that could be easily procured.

As night fell upon the hollow, the black bitch and the bluff male followed their noses to the stinking beefs on the hillside. The turkey vultures, the crows, and the ravens had torn big holes in the hides. The anus was ripped out of one of the black Anguses, and the black baldie’s stomach had ruptured.

The scent of man was upon the carcasses, and they approached with deliberate caution. A man could be sitting up on that ridge somewhere, pushing forward the safety on his .243 and peering down with a thermal scope to blast them into that great coyote beyond, where all sensible men or, rather, men who believe themselves to be sensible, are certain all coyotes rightly belong.

The buff male came in downwind. He wanted to be sure that no man was nearby. The scent troubled him, troubled him deeply. He didn’t know why.  His kind had come east through the slinging of lead, the setting of traps, and the poisoning of bait. Poison had selected away all the coyotes that didn’t feel tense or nervous as the scent of man on a carcass. It was just one of those things. Man bred the dog to be tame and loyal and docile and to take to his commands and edicts. Man bred the coyote to be paranoid.

The buff male circled the dead cows. Each circle got closer and closer until he finally got himself enough to courage to lick at the open bit of rumen. Within 30 minutes, both the buff male and the black bitch were tucking into the meat.

And there was plenty of meat. So much meat that 30- and 45- pound coyotes can’t eat it all, but they try their best. They filled their stomachs with offal and bits of putrid meat, and then trotted back to the den, where the gray female and the four yelping juveniles dived upon them. The two adults vomited up some fine food for the babies and their babysitter, then they rushed back to the cattle carcasses to fill their bellies again.

And by dawn, they were at the den-site, all full and fat and stupid and lazy, like big dogs lounging the backyard on a fine autumn morning.

The pack slept through the day, and as the night fell, the black bitch and the buff male decided to begin their long mosey over to the carcasses for another gluttonous feed.

But this time, another scent wafted down from the tulip trees: the scent of interloping coyotes.

It was a pair of dark gray ones, the more typical phase for this part of the Appalachians. They were mates. One was a big, husky female whose mate and she had fought many a battles in oak woods and along wild creek-beds over both territory and deer offal. Her right ear was torn and bent at the tip. Her face was scarred with canine tooth tears. She was a war bitch.

Her mate was younger and stupider. He’d was 25 pounds of slight coyote, and if he hadn’t somehow hooked up with that war bitch, he probably wouldn’t have lasted long.

He’d left his parents’ territory in search of a mate. He found her on a dreary December evening. Her original mate had been dead for just a few weeks. An unlucky doe hunter had seen the coyote pair slip beneath his tree stand, and blaming the coyotes for his misfortune, slung some lead in their direction. Four shots rang out, and one made contact.

The war bitch became a widow,  but the little 25-pounder came slinking along to nibble a deer gut pile that the scarred face dog had claimed for herself. When she scented the little fool trying to nibble at her gut pile, she came flying at him with a nasty growl.

He ran from her but stopped to look back at her.  Something about this little stranger appealed to her. Perhaps it was his slightness and gauntness. Perhaps it was her instinct to have a mate.

But she whined and wagged her tail at him.  He came tentatively and with apprehension, but he ate from the gut pile.

And he became her mate.

The pair produced a litter that spring– only three pups. The slight male tried his best to feed his mate at the den, but his hunting skills were still being honed. On many days, the meat never arrived at den site. The gaunt male’s stomach was empty, nothing regurgitated for his family.

It was going to be a tough summer for the family, but the litter met an ignoble end:

When the war bitch slipped down to drink from a little stream, a copperhead slid into the den and envenomated all the pups. It ate one of them and went on its way.

And the whole litter died.

No litter meant that the war bitch and her little man could run the hills together.  They didn’t have much of a pack, but they had each other.

And she would teach him to be a real mate.

For two days, the pair had scented the stinking cattle carcasses, but the war bitch was so wary of the scent of man.

But the buff male and black bitch had broken the ice. Their scent was stronger than the scent of man now, and the war bitch knew the carcasses were safe.

So she dragged her little man along for a good feast of fetid beef.

The buff male stopped hard. He let loose a single coyote bark. Then he allowed a stern growl to rise from his throat.

The war bitch rose from the rib cage she had been eating on. Her face was so bloody that it made her scarred face take on a demonic countenance. She stood over the carcass, tail tuck down between her legs, teeth showing in a coyote gape threat.

The buff male approached the carcass tail down and in a matching gape threat as well. The black bitch did the same.

The war bitch held her ground as the enemy approached.  The buff male and the black bitch circled the carcass. The war bitch stared down with the contempt of a thousand hells.

She had fought enough battles to know that if she just stood her ground, she could win without a scuffle. Most coyotes don’t want a big fight, even if they could potentially win in growling melee. Those kinds of fights run the risk of injury, so they can be bluffed.

She knew the buff male would fight, but his new mate was inexperienced. She wasn’t a total lightweight like the gaunt male, but she wasn’t ready to charge into a fight.

The gaunt male saw what was coming, and he took off. He raced up the hill above the carcasses and stood behind a pin oak, quivering in fear but not wanting to leave his mate, who was also his mentor and main protector.

The war bitch stood in her gape threat, and the two opponents continued their circling. And then, the black bitch in her anger and impudence broke her circling and charged the rib cage.

She decided to take on the war bitch from behind, but the old fighter swirled around to meet her adversary. And the two coyotes became a fighting and snarling blur that soon descended from the exposed rib cage.

The buff male charged the blur, and soon he was upon them. Two minutes of growling, snarling, and whining, and a gray streak shot out from the melee.

The war bitch knew she was over-matched, and now her own blood poured from her right hip and from both shoulders.  She was beaten, and she knew it.

She raced toward her mate behind the pin oak, and both the buff male and black bitch were racing behind her. They stopped after she began her ascent up the steep hill, and stood staring hard to make sure she had truly left the scene.

The buff male and black bitch had defended their carcass, and they licked each other’s wounds and whined in elation. They were a team now.

And in their joy, they lifted their heads to join in a good coyote howling session.

Afterward, they trotted back to the carcasses and ate their meat in big gulps.

***

The black bitch and buff male ate from the carcasses every night for three days. When they came back to the den digest their meat, the gray female would leave her post to wander up on her own to eat some meat for herself.

They could eat the rotting meat until it was gone.

And it was going fast.

During the day, the ravens and crows and vultures flew down to peck around at the bounty. Once, two dogs came into enjoy a bit of meat. One was an English shepherd. The other a bluetick coonhound. The two dogs belonged to a little self-styled homesteader who let them roam over the country.

They were country dogs through and through.  Rugged runners who had ticks and fleas, they weren’t above the proper manners of a dog in civilized society. They were wandering fawn lifters and manure rollers. They were owned and named, but they were still given liberty to be wildish things.

The coyotes all had sense to avoid them. Dogs are the traitors. They are for all intents and purposes the same people as the coyote, but they live in a confederacy with man.

And dogs can mean the end for coyotes. All it takes is one little scrap with a dog to alert man of the existence of coyotes, and they can be wiped out

The dogs were just transients in the world of the wild. They came to roll in the stink and to nibble at the putrid, but they soon were on their way.

The dogs were banal visitors, but the arrival of a bald eagle on the third day was something to behold. Every crow within a two mile radius came to mob the eagle.

So the eagle came and pecked at some meat. The trees around the carcass were now full of turkey vultures. A couple of ravens croaked away, as mob of six black vultures devoured what they could, as the great eagle dined.

These cows in calf were meant to feed the multitudes of men, but now they were feeding the multitudes of beasts.

The carrion beetles were working their way through underside of the cattle. Thousands of them were eating away at the flesh from below.

And opossums were getting their fill too, and several had taken up residence inside the black baldie. They woke from inside the body cavity to chew away at the meat and offal all around them.

And the coyotes came every night.

But on that fourth night, the buff male and black female made their way to the carcasses, a new scent wafted down towards them. It was the pungent aroma of a black bear.

This time they knew they would have to wait their turn, for a bear of any size could easily claim the cattle carcasses.

And this was not a bear of any size. It was a hulking 400-pound boar, who had finally come out off his summer courting, for a little bit of a beef dinner.

He was hulking blackness, full of muscle and power. He ripped through the carcasses. His claws tore them apart. His teeth tore at the flesh.

The coyotes were unable to stop him.

And after that one night of devouring, he soon came every night.

The coyotes were able to eat only when the bear’s ravening was sated, which usually happened when the morning sun began to filter through the darkness.

Coyotes in this part of the world had long learned to stay hidden during the daylight hours. Man’s guns are always out when the sun shines.

Their eating hours were greatly truncated, hemmed in by the bear’s appetite and the sunshine, and so they stopped relying upon the carcasses to feed their growing family.  They returned to long nights of mousing and running rabbits.

After a week of boar’s visit, a sow with three young cubs also made her way to the carcass. The cubs nibbled at scant remains, playing with the bones and ripping up what was left of the hides.

By two weeks, the carcasses were reduced to yellow bones. All that meat and all that money had been carried away into the sky, into the bellies of furred beats, and in the abdomens of carrion beetles.

Profit was lost from the death of those three cattle.  The lightning bolt robbed the farmer and gave to nature– a sort of cosmic Robin Hood that temporarily took man from his vaunted status and dispersed his possession to the lowly and the savage.

300 years ago, the death of a few bison by lightning strike would have yield a similar bounty, and because bison weigh so much more than domestic cattle, the bounty would have gone longer.  The only people robbed would be the hide and meat hunters who sought the bison, and there were plenty of those beasts roaming the hills. Another herd would be just beyond the next ridge.

The ersatz-bison, the debased aurochs that we call cattle, are owned. They don’t roam freely, live freely, or die freely. Their hides and the meat and bones don’t return to the soil without the interference of man.

But sometimes, the lightning strikes, and their elements go to nourish nature once again.

Three dead beef cows in calf got to do this nourishing once again.

It’s a drop in the bucket to be sure, a sort of re-enactment of the drama that once was but never will be again.

 

 

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Bobcat (top) and Canada lynx (bottom) from James Ellsworth De Kay's Preliminary List of the Mammals of New York (1842).

North America has two lynx species– the Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) and the bobcat (Lynx rufus). Historically they have been regarded as being members of a single species that includes the Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx), the largest and most widespread member of the genus in the Old World.

Both bobcats and Canada lynx evolved from the Eurasian lynx.  The lineage that led to the modern bobcat is believed to have diverged from the ancestral Eurasian lynx population around 2 million years ago.

The Eurasian lynx is a generalist carnivoran. It hunts a wide variety of prey, including deer and small rodents. It once ranged from the British Isles to the the Russian Far East and is found as far south as the Himalayas.

It widely varies in size from as little as 22 pounds to (officially) as much as 84 pounds.

These traits also exist in the bobcat species, which varies from as little as 9 pounds to as much as 49 pounds.

Note that the scale is much smaller for the bobcat than the Eurasian lynx.

Bobcats are essentially miniature versions of their Old World ancestor. They also hunt a wide variety of prey species ranging from mice to mule deer. The southern subspecies of bobcat are quite a bit smaller than those in the north of their range, which allows them to fill the niche of a small mesopredator. The northern subspecies are quite different, and in some areas, including West Virginia, they eat a lot of deer.

Bobcats evolved their smaller size as a result of the conditions during the last glacial maximum. They have only existed in their current form for about 20,000 years.

The advancing glaciers kept the gene flow from other ancestral Eurasian lynx from entering North America, but eventually, another wave of Eurasian lynx migration happened in the northernmost part of North America. It is not clear exactly when this happened, but the lynx population that colonized this part of North America evolved very differently from the bobcat. These cats likely evolved in the northern part of the continent that was at times free from the ice sheets but were still separated from the bobcats by glaciers that were further to the south.

Whereas the bobcat had retained much of its ancestor’s generalist behavior, these northern North American lynx became specialists. Perhaps the only prey available for lynx living in the far north were snowshoe hares, for these lynx became very much adapted to hunting only that prey.

These lynx became the modern Canada lynx, which is sometimes incorrectly called the “Canadian lynx.”    If a bobcat and a Canada lynx are in Canada, they are both Canadian lynx, just as if you find a Canada goose and a snow goose in Canada, they are both Canadian geese. But the actual species for both the goose and the lynx are “Canada goose” and “Canada lynx.”

Throughout its range, Canada lynx are almost entirely dependent upon snowshoe hares for sustenance. Snowshoe hares are prone to boom and bust cycles of population growth, and the Canada lynx population largely tracks snowshoe hare populations.

Because it hunts almost nothing but snowshoe hares, the Canada lynx is also smaller than the Eurasian lynx, but unlike the Eurasian lynx and bobcat, its size variance is more conservative, generally weighing only between 18 and 24 pounds. It is a longer legged cat than the bobcat, and it generally weighs more than the majority of bobcats. However, the largest bobcats are larger than the typical Canada lynx.

The only place in North America where Canada lynx existed without snowshoe hares was Newfoundland, and here the Canada lynx either re-evolved its generalist habits and somewhat larger size or it is the one subspecies of Canada lynx that has retained the generalist habits and phenotype of its Eurasian ancestor. Whatever the case, the Newfoundland subspecies of Canada lynx is known to attack caribou, but its numbers were always quite low in Newfoundland, leading some to speculate that the Canada lynx was never native to the island.

This all changed when snowshoe hares were introduced to the island between 1864 and 1876.  The hares were introduced as a supplemental food species for colonists on the island, and when the hares arrived, they were without any competition. Arctic hares lived in the north and west of Newfoundland, but they have very different habits from snowshoes.

The snowshoe hares thrived and greatly multiplied, and the Canada lynx population skyrocketed along with the hares. By the early 1900’s, the snow shoe hares had thoroughly colonized the island.

Then, they reached their carrying capacity, and as normally happens on the mainland, the snowshoe hare population began to drop. Leaving behind lots of hungry Canada lynx.

As I noted before, the Newfoundland subspecies of Canada lynx is capable of hunting caribou.

And many of the cats started doing just that.

And then the caribou numbers began to drop.

However, initially no one knew that the Canada lynx was somehow implicated in reducing caribou numbers.

Many caribou were dying as young calves– from bizarre bacterial infections that were almost always accompanied by some weird puncture marks on the neck.

It took a while to figure out that these bacterial infections were coming from failed predation attempts by Canada lynx. The puncture marks on the necks were those of the lynx’s teeth, which, for whatever reason, didn’t often produce a killing bite.

When it was discovered that Canada lynx were reducing caribou numbers, lynx trapping and hunting limits were liberalized, and there was an increase in the endemic Newfoundland caribou herds.

(You can read more about the Canada lynx, hare, and caribou dynamic on this post. It took only the introduction of snowshoe hares to disrupt the whole predator-prey dynamic in Newfoundland.)

But with the exception of Newfoundland, Canada lynx are not implicated as being any kind of major predator to large ungulates.

The larger subspecies of bobcat, however, do take deer on a relatively regular basis.

These larger bobcats are actually much more aggressive than Canada lynx, and where their ranges overlap, the bobcats generally dominate the lynx.

The range overlaps over most of the Canada lynx’s range in the United States and in the southern tier of Canada.

And not only do bobcats dominate Canada lynx, there is also evidence of introgression of bobcat genes into the Canada lynx population. As of 2008, seven Canada lynx/bobcat hybrids were documented in the states of Maine and Minnesota and the province of New Brunswick. Non-overlapping allele frequency analysis revealed that these cats all had some bobcat ancestry, and mtDNA evidence revealed that they all had a Canada lynx as a mother. One queen had three kittens, which shows that hybrids are able to reproduce in the wild, and another queen had placental scars in her reproductive tract.

The male-female combination in the hybrids is pretty similar to what we know about the the behavior of the two cats.  Bobcats are  just much more aggressive than Canada lynx. Because the female bobcat is quite aggressive, it would be very hard for a male Canada lynx to mate with her, but the male bobcat is aggressive enough to drive male Canada lynx away from their mates.

Of course, there is some suggestion that bobcats are starting to thrive in lynx habitat because of climate change, and that very well may be. But Canada lynx once were found very deep into bobcat range. In the Eastern US, they ranged as far south as West Virginia, which does have a population of snowshoe  hares. Perhaps during the Little Ice Age, snowshoe hares were much more widely distributed in West Virginia than they are now, which allowed the Canada lynx to colonize this far south. There is also some possibility that there were very large Canada lynx type cats in the Alleghenies, as this historical record suggests. Perhaps these large gray lynx were an offshoot of a Canada lynx population that moved south and evolved to hunt deer– or maybe they were a primitive Canada lynx that still possessed their ancestral Eurasian lynx size.  (Or it could have been a damn tall tale. Never discount that possibility!)

If Canada lynx ranged this far south, then there likely would have been a gene flow between bobcats and lynx.   It is possible that there could have always been some hybridization between the species once the glaciers separating the two were gone.

We honestly don’t know how much hybridization has happened between bobcats and Canada lynx. Currently, the suggestion is that hybridization isn’t common, but the genetic studies on bobcats and Canada lynx are somewhat limited– especially when compare them to wolves and coyotes, which recently were recently examined in the most in depth genomic assay ever performed on wild animals.

Something similar to the genome-wide study on coyotes and wolves needs to be performed on Canada lynx and bobcats. If one were peformed, I bet we’d find that those two animals have exchanged genes quite a bit in the past and continue to do so now. Perhaps they even have a species complex.

Roughly two million years of evolution separates the bobcat from the Canada lynx, which is more closely related to the Eurasian lynx than the bobcat.

But two million years may not be enough separation for the two cats to regard each other as separate species.

The little generalist lynx of North America meets its gray, hare hunting cousin.

The exact taxonomy of the two species has remained contentious for decades.

Initially they were regarded as different subspecies of lynx– and were conspecific with the Eurasian lynx.  Later, they Canada lynx was made a subspecies of Eurasian lynx, and the bobcat was moved into the house cat genus– Lynx rufus became Felis rufus.

Currently, we recognize that bobcats and Canada lynx are close relatives. Both derive from the ancestral Eurasian lynx, but both of these North American derivatives has gone its own way.

At least in the aggregate.

They have gone their own way.

But they have also converged.

How much they have converged is anyone’s guess– more studies need to be peformed.

But the genus Lynx has had a remarkable evolutionary history in North America.

And it may have a remarkable evolutionary future.

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I had never actually looked at the historic range for the Canada lynx, and I was more than a little shocked to find this map from the National Geographic Society.

They were here!

I then came across some analysis  that claims that Virginia was within the cats’ historic range, but this may be slightly in error.

When the lynx where here, this region was within the Commonwealth of Virginia, which became the union state of West Virginia in 1863.  Virginia, in case you didn’t know, was busy trying to be part of another country in 1863.

One must keep in mind that the distinctions between Canada lynx and bobcats were not as clearly defined as they are now. I have come across sources that talk about a lynx in Texas, which most obviously was the bobcat.

The two cats are actually quite closely related and can interbreed and produce fertile offspring. They very rarely do so in the wild, because bobcats are much more aggressive with each other than Canada lynx are.

Contrary to what you may have read, Canada lynx are not necessarily larger than bobcats either. The bobcat varies much more in size, and many bobcats, especially in the subtropical parts of the South, are quite small animals, only weighing around 10 to 15 pounds. However, the biggest bobcat on record was much larger than this. It was shot in Marinette County, Wisconsin, and it weighed over 48 pounds. The Canada lynx is usually in the 18-25 pound range.  The northernmost bobcats are  generally larger than Canada lynx.  The reason why people think they are much larger is that Canada lynx have much longer legs than a bobcat.  Longer legs and thicker fur give the illusion that the Canada lynx is the same size as a mid-sized dog.

Besides human depredations and habitat loss, there are several reasons why the Canada lynx isn’t found in much of the United states anymore. Bobcats are much more adept at killing large prey than Canada lynx, which is a snowshoe hare specialist. Snowshoe hares aren’t as widespread in the East and Midwest as they once were. In West Virginia, there are fears that snowshoe hares could become very rare in the near future, and if lynx and bobcat were to ever compete, the lynx would be much more tightly regulated by snowshoe hare numbers. Bobcats, being the generalists of all generalists, would be able to take other prey.

But even at that, I can tell you that my grandpa actually saw a Canada lynx while turkey hunting.

He told me it was the size and color of Norwegian elkhound. He initially mistook it for a dog of that belonged to someone he knew in that area. The cat probably didn’t weigh as much as an elkhound, but they are about the same height at the shoulder. If the lynx had been thickly furred, it would have contributed to its elkhoundish appearance.  Elkhounds are not cats with short tails, and they lack the very large tufts on the ears, which also would suggest that this animal was not a bobcat.

My grandpa was always very clear that it wasn’t a bobcat. Bobcats are relatively common in this part of the world, and the main color phase of the bobcat here are very thickly speckled. At at distance, Canada lynx appear almost pure gray in color.

What was it doing in West Virginia?

It could have been from a relict population, but this is unlikely. There are no snowshoe hares in the part of the state where he encountered it, and if one were to ever find native lynx in West Virginia, it would almost have to be found in prime snowshoe hare territory.

These cats do disperse a long way from their mother’s territories– especially young toms. It is possible that one from Canada or the Great Lakes states could have wandered down.

But I think it is much more likely it was one that had originally been kept as a pet and then released into the wild.

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From Outdoor News:

The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) has received photographic evidence of the presence of a cougar in Vernon Parish.

A private citizen sent LDWF a trail camera picture taken Aug. 13, 2011. LDWF Large Carnivore Program Manager Maria Davidson and biologist Brandon Wear conducted a site investigation that confirmed the authenticity of the photograph.

“It is quite possible for this animal to be captured on other trail cameras placed at deer bait sites,” Davidson said. “Deer are the primary prey item for cougars; therefore, they are drawn to areas where deer congregate.”

It is unlikely this cougar will remain in any one area longer than it would take to consume a kill. Cougars do not prefer to eat spoiled meat and will move on as soon as the Louisiana heat and humidity take its toll on the kill.

“It is impossible to determine if the animal in the photograph is a wild, free-ranging cougar, or an escaped captive,” Davidson added. “Although it is illegal to own a cougar in Louisiana, it is possible that there are some illegally held ‘pets’ in the state.”

LDWF has documented several occurrences since 2002. The first cougar sighting was in 2002 by an employee at Lake Fausse Point State Park. That sighting was later confirmed with DNA analysis from scat found at the site. Three trail camera photos were taken of a cougar in Winn, Vernon and Allen parishes in 2008. Subsequently on Nov. 30, 2008, a cougar was shot and killed in a neighborhood by Bossier City Police Department.

The mountain lion, cougar, panther or puma are names that all refer to the same animal. Their color ranges from lighter tan to brownish grey. The only species of big cats that occur as black are the jaguar and leopard. Jaguars are native to South America and leopards are native to Africa. Both species can occur as spotted or black, although in both cases the spotted variety is much more common. Although LDWF receives numerous calls about black panthers, there has never been a documented case of a black cougar anywhere in North America.

The vast majority of these reports received by LDWF cannot be verified due to the very nature of a sighting. Many of the calls are determined to be cases of mistaken identity, with dog tracks making up the majority of the evidence submitted by those reporting cougar sightings. Other animals commonly mistaken for cougars are bobcats and house cats, usually seen from a distance or in varying shades of light.

The significant lack of physical evidence indicates that Louisiana does not have an established, breeding population of cougars. In states that have verified small populations of cougars, physical evidence can readily be found in the form of tracks, cached deer kills, scat and road kills.

The recent sightingsof cougars in Louisiana are believed to be young animals dispersing from existing populations. An expanding population in Texas can produce dispersing individual cougars that move into suitable habitat in Louisiana. Young males are known to disperse from their birthplace and travel hundreds of miles seeking their own territories.

Cougars that occur in Louisiana are protected under state and federal law. Penalties for taking a cougar in Louisiana may include up to one year in jail and/or a $100,000 fine. Anyone with any information regarding the taking of a cougar should call the Operation Game Thief hotline at 1-800-442-2511. Callers may remain anonymous and may receive a cash reward.

This really shouldn’t be surprising.

A cougar with origins in South Dakota was recently found run over in Connecticut.

West Virginia now recognizes this species as native wildlife that one might encounter, even though no wild cougars have been confirmed in the state.

This is one large cat species– which is not a true “big cat”– that is not going to become extinct.

At least north of Mexico.

South of Mexico and into Central and South America, the future is less clear.

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Source.

One can see from this video why the colonial French name for these seal makes perfect sense:  le loup marin.

The sea wolf.

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I think this song might encourage animal hoarding.

Source

I’ll take the 5 golden retrievers, but I can only imagine how much they would shed and how much mud they would track in.

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This subspecies of long-tailed that lives in California and the Southwest has a mask and looks even more like a tiny ferret than the winter phase of the subspecies we have here.

Source

Olduvai George has a nice depiction of one, in case you wanted a closer look at that mask.

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