Big cats such as panthers, tigers and lions are often featured in popular media. With their great strength, size, and seemingly endless confidence, these felines command attention. There are other members of the Felidae family however that go more unnoticed.
Bobcats (Lynx rufus), Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis), Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx), and the Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus), although dispersed throughout most of the world, appear to share a similar ancestor, Lynx issiodorensis or Issoire lynx, which went extinct more than 12,000 years ago.
Physiologic similarities between Issoire lynx and lynx today are plentiful. Fossil evidence shows that the Issoire lynx (named for the town where the fossils were found), had stocky limbs and a large head and long neck. Species in genus Lynx today are typically smaller than these pre-glacial ancestors.
Like so many other misunderstood species, Canada lynx are often considered a threat. Habitat destruction, natural cycles of prey availability and trapping have made the lives of the lynx more difficult. Historically, Canada lynx have been present in the Adirondacks, but more recent studies have concluded there is no breeding population in New York State. It’s important to note however, that an occasional lynx may be spotted. Lynx have a habit of traveling great distances during their lifetimes and claiming large territories. Bold lynx will cross the Canadian border from the north, looking for territory in the United States.
In 1989-1991, faculty at the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science & Forestry led an effort to release 83 lynx in the Adirondacks. Of those whose fates are known, nineteen were killed by cars and 8 by hunting; two lynx starved and two were killed by other predators. According to the Adirondack Ecological Center, lynx didn’t reestablish because they travel widely and failed to reproduce adequately to offset their mortality. The fate of over half the lynx is unknown, but the ESF-DEC project leaders viewed highway mortality and long-distance dispersal as the major issue. Today, there are no plans to reintroduce Canada lynx, but keep those trail cams on for a straying neighbor form the north.
Lynx live rather solitary lives except late in the winter when males begin looking for a mate, usually between February and March. Female territories are often completely encompassed by that of a male. Estrus is induced once a year and typically females have just one litter of two or three kittens. Kittens depend on their mother’s care, and are typically weened by the age of ten months. Nurturing the kittens to independence is left completely to their mother, who shows them how to hunt, while the father remains focused on territorial upkeep.
After the kittens mature and become more solitary, they will go on to feed primarily on hare, rabbit, and other small mammals, along with birds and fish. In the north, snowshoe hare and Canada lynx share an important relationship. The hare are a substantial food source for lynx, and the fates of the two species are intertwined. Some populations of Canada lynx rely almost completely on snowshoe hare. As hare populations increase, lynx have more food, and more kittens. More kittens mean less snowshoe hare. The feedback loop results in a fascinating dynamic stability.
During an average 15-year life span, Canada lynx will claim territories up to 300 square kilometers, (about 115 square miles). The Canada lynx is federally listed as a Threatened Species in the U.S. USFWS currently considering their de-listing. Lynx are also listed as Threatened in New York State.
Lynx live their solitary lives mostly far from the Adirondacks, but if you catch a glimpse of one, be sure to report your sighting to the DEC.
Corrections have been made to this story to adjust the dates and number of lynx released, specify better what happened to them, and add to their their threatened status.
Connor John Schmitz graduated from SUNY Plattsburgh with a degree in Ecology. He lived in Nepal from 2017 to 2019 as an agriculture volunteer with the US Peace Corps.
Photo of Canada Lynx by Jacob W. Frank, National Park Service.