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bobcat

When Europeans arrived in the Americas, the cougar was the most widespread wild cat species, but in the modern era, after we have extirpated the cougar from most of the East, the most widespread cat is the bobcat.

It is found throughout the Lower 48, but it is conspicuously absent from most of the Midwest. In Ohio, they are found almost entirely within a short distance of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, or Kentucky. In the Northern Great Lakes states, they live towards Canada and the lakes themselves. But they are fairly numerous elsewhere.

The bobcat is a species of lynx, which is conveniently classified in the genus Lynx.  Four extant species roam across Eurasia and North America. The bobcat includes the smallest individuals of the genus, but they are the most variable in size. 13-pound queens can be found, as can toms that exceed 40 pounds in weight.

The lynx species likely evolved in North America.  The dentition of a cat from the Pliocene that has been called Felis rexroadensis suggests that it was the earliest form of lynx.  Some authorities now call this cat Lynx rexroadensis. Bjorn Kurten believed that this species is the ancestor of the Issoire lynx (Lynx issiodorensis), which is the likely ancestor of the Eurasian, Iberian, and Canada lynx.

The bobcat is either a direct descendant of rexroadensis or is derived from the Issoire lynx that came back into North America.

The latter seems more likely,  because our current understanding of the molecular evolution of the cat family finds that the lynx species last shared a common ancestor 3.2 million years ago. 

Ancestral bobcats appear in the fossil record of North America 2.6 million years ago, and the modern bobcat evolved from a population that became marooned south of the ice sheets 20,000 years ago.

So the most likely scenario is that bobcats have a deep evolutionary history in North America, but their exact line went into Eurasia and then came back.

It should also be noted that Felis rexroadensis has sometimes been placed into another species called Puma lacustris, which fits somewhere in the cougar lineage. The cougar and lynx lineages are closely related, and as you go back towards the common ancestor of both lineages,  the basal forms tend to resemble each other. However, it is well-supported now that the lynx lineage first evolved in North America and then radiated into Eurasia.

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One dead moose sure can feed a lot of creatures!

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bobcat painting

The British zoologist Richard Lydekker writes in The Great And Small Game Of Europe, Western & Northern Asia And America: Their Distribution, Habits, And Structure (1901):

For accurate information regarding this lynx (which was first named by the German naturalist Guldenstadt in the year 1777) and its numerous local races we are entirely dependent upon the writings of modern American naturalists, there being no series of specimens in England sufficiently large to admit of an independent opinion being formed with regard to certain disputed points. By some English writers, notably the late Professor St. George Mivart, the red lynx was regarded as nothing more than a local phase of the common lynx; but this view has been shown by Mr. Outram Bangs to be quite untenable, the skulls of the common and the red lynx being easily distinguishable by certain characters of the hinder part of the palate. To point out the details of this difference in a work of the present nature would obviously be out of place, and the reader must accordingly be content with the fact that such differences do exist. So important, indeed, are these differences considered by the gentle man mentioned, that he refers the common lynx to one subgenus, under the name of Lynx, while he separates the red lynx as a distinct subgeneric group with the title of Cervaria. Mr. Bangs l also considers that the red lynxes of eastern North America are specifically distinct from those of the western side of the continent, regarding the former as the true Lynx rufa (or L. rufus, as, perpetuating an original typographical error, he prefers to spell it), while the latter are assigned to Lynx fasciatus of Rafinesque. He also separates the Florida and the Texas red lynxes as a third species of Cervaria, and the Nova Scotian representative of this type as a fourth. The differences relied upon seem to be chiefly connected with the skull and bodily form. But the possibility of intergradation between these three groups is suggested; and even if this prove not to be the case, they are evidently so closely allied that, in the opinion of the present writer, they seem best regarded as local races, or phases, of a single widely spread and variable specific type. This is indeed the view of Mr. F. W. True, who writes as follows : — “The spotted form of the bay lynx, found in Texas, and the banded form, found in Oregon and Washington, have been described as separate species, under the names Lynx maculatus and Lynx fasciatus. They are now generally regarded as geographical races of the bay lynx.”

According to Mr. Bangs, the red lynx, in addition to the peculiarities of the palatal aspect of the skull already referred to, differs from the common lynx by the smaller relative size of the feet (which is most marked in the Florida race), the larger area of the bare pads on the soles of the feet, the somewhat longer tail, and the shorter pencils of hair surmounting the tips of the ears. The fur, too, is shorter and closer. In the skull the upper jaw-bone, or maxilla, forms a junction of considerable length with the nasal on each side, instead of being nearly or completely cut off from the latter; the auditory bulla on the lower surface of the skull is deeper and longer; and the whole skull is narrower, especially in the region of the muzzle. As regards the teeth, the tusks are said to be stouter and the lower molar smaller than in the common lynx.

As is indicated by its scientific and popular names, this lynx, in the summer coat, is redder than the common species; this red tinge, which in winter is restricted to the flanks, making its appearance in the typical race about February. The backs of the ears are black, with a larger or smaller greyish triangular patch; the upper lip has a more or less conspicuous black mark, and the tip of the tail may be white, with several half-rings of black above, but in other cases is black. The amount of dark spotting and striping on the back varies in the different races.

In the proportionately longer tail, the shorter ear-pencils, and the relations of the maxillae to the nasal bones, the red lynx departs less widely from more typical representatives of the genus Felis, such as the jungle-cat, than does the common lynx. The present species is a more southerly type than the latter, ranging as far south as Mexico.

In habits this lynx is doubtless nearly if not precisely similar to the common species. By American sportsmen it is usually termed the wild cat. In severe weather, according to Mr. Herrick, it is often compelled to prey upon porcupines in order to secure a living, and not unfrequently [sic] pays for its rashness with its life, examples having been killed in which the head and throat were transfixed with porcupine-quills (pg. 408-409).

The terms “red lynx” or “bay lynx” are not commonly used now. Lydekker preferred to use the name “Lynx rufa,” but we’ve since moved to “Lynx rufus.”

I have a field guide that was published in the 90s that calls them Felis rufus, but we now classify the bobcat and the other three species of lynx in their own Lynx genus.

But it was confusing for nineteenth and early twentieth century naturalists. What made it confusing was the American colloquial name for the bobcat.  If you call it a bobcat or a “wildcat,” you’re sort of implying a relationship with the wildcats of the Old World. This is probably because in parts of the South, often aren’t much larger than domestic cat, and if you realize that there are bob-tailed domestics, then you’re already going to think of them as wildcats.

And when most people living in this part of the world came from Britain, which had been free of Eurasian lynx since at least around the year 400, and they had no concept of thinking of a bobcat as a smaller species of lynx. It was easier to think of it as a species of wildcat, when you have no concept of a lynx.

To make matters more confusing, bobcats vary greatly across their range. The largest individuals can weigh over 40 pounds, but the smallest are roughly the size of relatively large domestic cat. Some populations are known for their heavy spots, while others are almost entirely one color (except on the belly and legs).  Some naturalists were of the opinion that these cats represented different species, which we now discount entirely.

Right now, we recognize two species of lynx in North America: the bobcat and the Canada lynx. However, there were always attempts to make the Canada lynx part of the Eurasian species, and I’ve seen them referred to as a type of Lynx lynx rather than as Lynx canadensis. I don’t think that’s entirely accurate. Canada lynx are snowshoe hare specialists, and they actually weigh less than the largest bobcats. Eurasian lynx, however, are quite large cats, much more closely resembling the large species of lynx which is the ancestor of them all. Eurasian lynx are generalist predators, much like giant bobcats.

But these three species are all chemically interfertile. The fourth species, the Iberian lynx, probably is as well, but it is so rare that no one would waste their genetic material with hybridization experiments. But I have seen attempts to put all of these cats into a single species, which almost universally leaves out the bobcat.

Strangely, the only two species of lynx that have been confirmed to interbreed in the wild are Canada lynx and bobcats. Eurasian lynx don’t live in North America, where they could interbreed with bobcats or Canada lynx, and there are no Eurasian lynx near the Iberian lynx’s range.

So to leave the bobcat out of the Lynx genus is pretty silly.

But it was so hard to classify them before we had a broader perspective on the cat family. There is no way you will ever get me to call a bobcat a “wildcat.”  I also think it may have been wiser to hold onto the red lynx name. “Bobcat’ might suggest we have deer-killing Manx in the forest!

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Canada lynx trapping

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Attracting a Canada lynx

This is a really good video about someone attracting a Canada lynx to the back of a cabin.

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This is my favorite species of wild cat.

I think they are so beautiful with their gray pelts and tufted ears.

They have a sort of profound elegance one does not see in the bobcat.

It’s a frosty, steely presence that is hard to describe.

It’s the cat of the Great White North.

Gray as the boreal forest in January, it is the slayer of snowshoe hares.

Its wagon is attached to the hare’s wagon, and should the hare population crash, the lynx population soon follows.

But it will scavenge and even eat the flesh of its own kind.

It is only through this way that it’s been able to survive in the subarctic forests, where no other cats live or even dare to tread.

It is not beyond its nature for humans to be able to attract them with bits of meat.

I bet some old trappers and mountain men once dreamed of being able to tame them.

But we never have.

They come for the hand-outs, and then they melt back into the forest– wild phantoms whose world we can never fully understand.

 

 

 

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Lynx dogs

From Harper’s Young People (1880):

The large and powerful dogs which are found in Canada and the northern portions of Michigan, Minnesota, and other border States, where they are used as train dogs to drag the mail sledges over vast wastes of snow during the winter, are natural enemies of the lynx, and pursue it furiously through the snow-bound forests. Their loud barking often warns the hunter before he himself catches sight of the game that the desired prize is treed, and awaits its fate, with arched back and fur bristling, after the manner of an enraged cat.

The dogs depicted treeing this lynx are most likely of the farm shepherd- or farm collie-type.

These were dogs that were used for many different purposes– driving sheep and cattle, guarding the farms and homesteads, and hunting various game species.

It would make sense that someone with sheep would use dogs of this type to hunt a supposed predator of the stock.

I don’t know how often they would have attacked sheep.

My guess is not much. This animal prefers to live on snowshoe hares, and although it will hunt other things, if it has ample snowshoe hare populations, it won’t try to hunt much else.

These animals most likely became rare in the Lower 48 because of unregulated trapping for their fur. Note that I said unregulated trapping, for the Canadians and Alaskans have not made the lynx rare through their regulated trapping regimes.

In some parts of Canada, these animals aren’t just trapped and hunted for their fur. They are also taken for their meat, which is said to be quite good.

I’d like to try it.

It’s basically eating a big gray pussy cat, but it’s said to be a quite nice, lean meat.

But then you’re eating a cat, which some people erroneously think is going extinct. It’s endangered only in the Lower 48, not Alaska or Canada.

But because people just don’t know, you’re evil if you even suggest it.

But many a North Woods trapper or hunter has relied upon lynx meat to sustain him and his family through the long winter.

 

 

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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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