The Canada lynx

Published on February 9, 2013 by Amy

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The Canada lynx
The Canada lynx

The Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) is a beautiful wild felid (or cat) of the boreal forest. Like the cougar and the bobcat, the Canada lynx tends to be secretive and most active at night and, like them it is rarely seen in the wild. Even for trappers who have spent a lifetime in areas where lynxes are common, encounters with these predators are rare and memorable. Of the three wild felids, the lynx and bobcat are most alike and most closely related to each other. They probably both descended from the larger Eurasian lynx. The cougar is much larger and more powerful than either of them, and can be readily identified by its long tail.

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The lynx preys almost exclusively on the snowshoe hare, and snowshoe hare populations follow a 10-year cycle. Lynx numbers thus fluctuate dramatically, as populations of the hare, its main prey species, build to a peak and then crash.

The lynx resembles a very large domestic cat. It has a short tail, long legs, large feet, and prominent ear tufts. Its winter coat is light grey and slightly mottled with long guard hairs; the underfur is brownish, and the ear tufts and tip of the tail are black. The summer coat is much shorter than the winter coat and has a definite reddish brown cast.

Its large feet, which are covered during winter by a dense growth of coarse hair, help the lynx to travel over snow. The lynx, like the snowshoe hare, can spread its toes in soft snow, expanding its “snowshoes” still farther.

The lynx has large eyes and ears and depends on its acute sight and hearing when hunting. The lynx’s claws, like those of most other cats, are retractable and used primarily for seizing prey and fighting. The lynx has a variety of vocalizations, like those made by house cats, but louder.The Canada lynx has prominent tufts of hair on its ears

The lynx and the bobcat look much alike, although on average bobcats are slightly smaller. There are small differences in appearance. The bobcat’s feet are not as large as those of the lynx, making the bobcat less able to secure food in deep snow; the lynx’s tail has a solid black tip, whereas that of the bobcat has three or four narrow black bars and a black spot near the tip on its upper surface; and the bobcat’s fur has more pronounced spotting.

Habitat and range

The lynx generally inhabits forested wilderness areas. It favours old growth boreal forests with a dense undercover of thickets and windfalls. However, this carnivore will populate other types of habitat as long as they contain minimal forest cover and adequate numbers of prey, in particular snowshoe hares. Because hare populations increase in forests that are growing back after disruption by wildfires or logging operations, these regenerating forest ecosystems are often able to support denser populations of lynxes as well.

The range of the lynx is essentially that part of North America covered by boreal forest and occupied also by the snowshoe hare (see map). Between 1900 and the mid-1950s, lynxes became scarce in the southern portions of this range. This was probably due to trapping during periods of snowshoe hare scarcity (low years in the 10-year cycle). At these times lynx numbers are already low and fewer young are surviving to adulthood, so trapping can seriously deplete, or even eradicate, local populations. In the past 25 years, lynxes have reoccupied some of this southern range, and this may be due to tighter legal restrictions on trapping. The northern range expansion of the bobcat in the past century may also have contributed to the overall decline in lynx numbers. When both species compete for the same space and food resources, the lynx most often yields to the more aggressive and adaptable bobcat.

Food habits and hunting behaviour

More than 75% of the lynx’s diet in winter is snowshoe hares, and when hares are abundant a lynx may kill one every one or two days. In summer the lynx’s diet is more varied. But even in summer hares remain the main prey, supplemented by grouse, voles, mice, squirrels, and foxes. A hungry lynx will devour an entire hare in one meal; partially-eaten prey may be hidden and eaten later. When it is available, lynxes will also supplement their diet with carrion from domestic livestock and/or big game animals, such as deer, but they rarely attack large prey. An exception is in Newfoundland where, after people introduced the snowshoe hare to the island in the 1870s, lynxes began to prey on caribou calves when snowshoe hares became scarce. In the 1960s, lynxes were killing so many calves that wildlife managers removed many of the lynxes found on the calving grounds. Today, the caribou population has increased to the point that lynx predation is not considered a threat.

Lynxes hunt at night. They watch and listen for prey, but they do not seem to track it by smell. Like all members of the cat family, they move very silently. Although excellent climbers, they are seldom found in trees. Because they cannot run fast except over short distances, they stalk or ambush their prey at close range. A common strategy is to lie in wait beside the well-used trails, or runways, of the snowshoe hare, and success usually depends on whether the lynx manages to capture the hare at one bound (about 6.5 m, four hops for the hare).

Male lynxes hunt alone, except briefly during the mating season. By autumn, females travel with their kittens, the young learning to hunt, and the family group may stay together until the breeding season, in late February or March. Family groups cooperate to increase their hunting success. The mother and young often travel in single file through habitat where hares are scarce, but will travel abreast when hunting in habitat where hares are plentiful. A hare flushed by one lynx may be caught by another.

Breeding

Mating occurs during February or March each year, and the young (usually four) are born in April and May, 60–65 days later. Although the lynx seldom uses an underground den, young may be born under brush piles or uprooted trees, or in hollow logs, which provide shelter from rain and cold. The kittens, reared solely by the female, look like those of the domestic cat. Female kits may breed for the first time as they approach one year of age, but this depends on the abundance and availability of snowshoe hares and the physical and nutritional condition of the lynx.

Limits to population

Probably starvation following the rapid cyclic declines in snowshoe hare populations is the greatest single source of natural mortality among adult and yearling lynxes. About 40% of the total lynx population may starve to death following a crash in the snowshoe hare population. During the following three to four years, when the hare population is starting to rebuild, lynxes breed, but the kittens die before winter. This suggests that an adult female simply cannot support both herself and her litter when hares are scarce.

The only other important cause of death seems to be trapping. Although the wolf is alleged to be the chief natural enemy of the lynx in northern Europe, nothing is known of lynx-wolf interactions in North America. The incidence of diseases, such as rabies and distemper, among lynxes and their impact on populations are also unknown.

The effects of people on the lynx

The most important influence of people on the lynx has been through trapping. The lynx is easily trapped, and when fur prices rise, trappers take a larger proportion of the lynx population. Intense trapping can remove most lynxes from a given area. Historically, trapping has caused long-term changes in the size of the lynx population.

In general, human activities do not seem to be threatening lynx populations. Although the lynx is usually considered to be a wilderness animal, human settlement does not seem to have reduced its range. Logging in the boreal forest that results in a good mix of mature conifer stands (for cover and travel) and regenerating stands (in which snowshoe hares abound) may even enhance habitat for lynx. Forestry operations, however, provide roads and ease of access to the trapper. If the regulations governing logging are not conservative and flexible enough, extensive clearcutting that results in the virtually complete removal of conifer forests from large tracts of land is probably harmful to resident lynx populations.

Source: turtletrack

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