The Canada lynx (Lynx [or Felis] canadensis) looks like a giant house cat with very long legs and long tufts of hair on the tips of its ears. The lynx is among some 40 species around the world in the cat family (Felidae).
There are a number of other species in the Lynx genus (group of related species), including the larger Eurasian lynx, which lives in northern Europe and Asia, and the smaller Iberian lynx, a very rare cat that lives in Portugal and Spain. Some scientists classify these two types of lynxes as the same species as the Canada lynx. In addition, the bobcat (Lynx rufus) is a common North American species that is similar to, but smaller than, the Canada lynx.
Where Lynxes Live
The Canada lynx is common in Alaska and throughout Canada. However, it is rare in the conterminous (lower 48) United States, where it is now found primarily in Maine, Montana, Washington, and Colorado.
The main habitat of the lynx is the boreal forest, a type of northern forest characterized by such coniferous (cone-bearing) trees as fir, pine, and spruce. Lynxes also live in cool swampy areas and in the tundra of the far north.
The Lynx’s Body
The lynx has a short, sturdy body approximately 32 to 36 inches long, in addition to a stubby four-inch, black-tipped tail. It typically weighs between 20 and 45 pounds, with males heavier than females. The fur of a lynx ranges in color from grayish to yellowish to rusty. There are small black spots in the fur, but these are often difficult to see.
The lynx can move swiftly through deep snow because of its long, strong legs and its wide, fur-covered paws. The wide feet act like snowshoes to distribute the animal’s weight over a large area, preventing it from sinking into the snow.
Lynxes hunt in the typical catlike manner—carefully stalking their prey and then suddenly pouncing on it. They hunt hares, rabbits, rodents (such as mice and squirrels), birds (such as grouse and ptarmigan), and young deer. They often store uneaten food in caches for later use by partly covering it with snow.
In the northern parts of their range, lynxes depend almost entirely on snowshoe hares for food. Scientists have long documented how the population of the lynx fluctuates up and down in regular cycles along with the population of the snowshoe hare. Approximately every 10 years, the number of snowshoe hares declines to a minimum level (for complex reasons related to weather, food supply, and other factors). One to two years after this decline, the population of lynxes falls to a minimum as the cats have trouble finding enough food.
The hare population then recovers over the next few years—making more food available for lynxes and allowing the lynx population to rebound. The hare population reaches its maximum level roughly every 10 years, and the lynx population reaches its maximum one to two years later. The cycle then starts all over again.
Lynxes are mostly nocturnal animals, hunting at night and sleeping during the day. However, they sometimes move about in daylight. Lynxes usually live alone, except for small groups consisting of mothers and their offspring.
Lynxes find shelter in dens, which may be in hollow logs, beneath tree roots, among clumps of fallen branches, or inside caves. Lynxes are at home on the ground, in trees, and in water. They are good runners, climbers, and swimmers.
A lynx typically kills and eats one hare every two or three days. Because a lynx needs a steady and abundant supply of food, it needs to have a large home range (the area in which it normally lives). The home range of a lynx may be as large as 115 square miles.
A lynx can make a wide variety of vocalizations, depending on if it is hungry, ill, fearful, or satisfied. Lynxes hiss and scream when threatened, yowl and growl when mating, and purr and mew when tending young.
Lynxes mate in late winter or early spring. Approximately 60 or 70 days after mating, the female gives birth to between one and four kittens, which nurse on mother’s milk for three to five months. The kittens stay with their mother until they are about 10 months old, fighting playfully with each other and learning how to hunt. The father plays no role in raising the young.
Lynxes reach sexual maturity when they are about two years old.
Some lynxes in captivity have lived more than 20 years. In the wild, however, the average lifespan of a lynx is thought to be about 15 years.
Predators hardly ever kill adult lynxes, but wolves, wolverines, and other predators sometimes kill lynx kittens. The main threat to lynxes comes from humans. Logging activities destroy the forest habitat of lynxes. Excessive hunting reduces the hare food supply of lynxes. Trapping kills lynxes for the fur market.
Tens of thousands of lynxes are believed to live in the wild in Alaska and Canada. However, in states near the Canadian border and in the Rocky Mountains region—where lynxes were once common—these wild cats have become rare as a result of harmful human activities.
In 2000, the United States Fish & Wildlife Service declared the Canada lynx to be a threatened species in the conterminous United States. This designation banned the trapping and hunting of lynxes. Still, these cats are sometimes caught in traps set for other animals, such as the much more common bobcat.
Wildlife biologists are trying to restore wild lynx populations in certain places in the United States. Since 1999, the Colorado Division of Wildlife has released more than 200 lynxes from Alaska and Canada into remote areas of the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado. An attempt to re-establish lynxes in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State in the 1980’s failed when cats relocated to these mountains from Canada were killed by automobiles.
Article Written By: Alfred J. Smuskiewicz
MAIN SOURCES USED IN RESEARCH:
- World Book Online: Lynx article, 2008.
- David Burnie, Don E. Wilson, editors. Smithsonian Institution Animal. Dorling Kindersley Publishers, 2001.
- Joseph A. Chapman, George A. Feldhamer, editors. Wild Mammals of North America. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.
- William H. Burt, Richard P. Grossenheider. A Field Guide to the Mammals. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976.