The Canada lynx is like a gray ghost of the North—elusive, evading human contact. It stands about 20 inches (51 centimeters) tall at the shoulder but weighs about 20 pounds (nine kilograms)—scarcely more than a large house cat. It is readily recognized by its long, black ear tufts; short, black-tipped tail; and large, rounded feet with furry pads, which allow it to walk on the snow’s surface.
Historically the Canada lynx ranged from Alaska across Canada and into many of the northern U.S. states. In eastern states, it lived in a transition zone in which boreal coniferous forests yielded to deciduous forests. In the West, it preferred subalpine coniferous forests of mixed age. It would den and seek protection from severe weather in mature forests with downed logs, but hunt for its primary prey—the snowshoe hare—in young forests with more open space.
Although lynx were never abundant in the United States, they probably did occur in most northern states and western mountainous areas as far south as Colorado. Today, while tens of thousands of lynx remain in Canada and Alaska, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service can confirm the presence of stable lynx populations below the border only in Maine, Montana, Washington, and Colorado.
In the northern part of its range, the lynx serves as one half of a classic predator-prey relationship, feeding almost exclusively on the snowshoe hare, a large northern rabbit that wears a brown coat in summer and a white one in winter. The two species evolved together, the cat becoming a specialist in killing the hare, and the hare becoming adept at eluding the lynx. The lynx kills an average of one hare every two or three days. It will turn to killing grouse, rodents, and other animals if hares become scarce. The link between lynx and hare is so tight in the North that the two species’ populations fluctuate in almost perfect synchrony.
Hare populations follow a natural cyclical pattern, changing approximately every 10 years from abundance to scarcity and back to abundance. Adult lynx usually survive periods of hare scarcity, but their kittens often do not. As a result, the lynx population follows a similar pattern, with its peaks and valleys lagging one to two years behind those of the hare. Lynx populations south of the Canadian border were probably never as abundant or dense as the more northern populations.
The diet of lynx in these southern areas is more varied—including squirrels, small rodents, grouse, and hares—and the populations are less dense and less productive than their northern counterparts. This low density and productivity makes southern lynx populations especially vulnerable to the ever-increasing human activities that affect the abundance of the lynx’s prey base in these regions, or that may cause lynx to avoid areas of otherwise acceptable habitat.
These felines are solitary hunters that are more active at night than in the day. They are such well adapted nocturnal hunters that they can spot prey in the darkness from 250 feet away.
Female lynx enter estrus—the state of being receptive to mating—once a year and raise one litter each year. Mating occurs from February to April and is followed by a gestation period of 8 to 10 weeks. Females give birth to young in logs, stumps, clumps of timber, or similar tangles of roots and branches. Litters usually have two or three kittens, though there may be as few as one or as many as eight. Lynx weigh about seven ounces (200 grams) at birth. Kittens will consume milk from their mother for about five months, although kittens eat some meat as early as one month after birth.
Females provide all of the parental care and help to educate their young in hunting techniques. The young remain with their mother until the following winter's mating season, and siblings may stay together longer. Females reach sexual maturity at 21 months and males at 33 months. In the wild, lynx can live up to 14 years. In captivity, lifespans of 26 years have been recorded.
In March 2000, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service listed the lynx as threatened in the lower 48 under the Endangered Species Act. The lynx’s gradual disappearance from the contiguous United States resulted from human activities that have compromised both the lynx and its habitat. In the 19th century, trapping put heavy pressure on the species. Now the cat’s survival in the U.S. is primarily jeopardized by habitat destruction and fragmentation. Today most suitable lynx habitat in the West is on public land. This includes national and state forests, where logging and recreational development often occur. Some timber practices can remove the mature forest that the lynx needs for denning and rearing young. These activities can also disrupt lynx travel patterns, as the cats prefer tree cover. Roads threaten the lynx by fragmenting its habitat, isolating lynx populations, exposing them to predators, and providing competitor species new access to habitat formerly dominated by the lynx. For example, snowmobile traffic creates trails that may allow competitors like coyotes, wolves, and cougars access to lynx winter habitat. Motor vehicles also cause lynx mortality: Recent attempts to reintroduce lynx from Canada into New York’s Adirondack Mountains failed, primarily because the cats were hit by cars and trucks.
To combat the impacts of habitat fragmentation and climate change for imperiled species like the lynx, the National Wildlife Federation’s Northeast Regional Center teamed up with two dozen public and private entities to maintain, enhance, and restore landscape connectivity for wildlife across the Northern Appalachian-Acadian region.
Collectively known as the Staying Connected Initiative, the National Wildlife Federation and its partners are working to conserve key linkage areas that are critical for lynx, bobcat, bear, moose, and other far-ranging mammals to migrate as their habitats change in response to climate change. By maintaining existing links in the landscape and preventing further habitat fragmentation within the linkage areas, the National Wildlife Federation is working to ensure that wildlife within our region have the ability to move where, when, and as far as needed.
Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology
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