The Lynx Lineage

Goblin cats in the forest are millions of years old.

And despite emitting banshee wails in the twilight . . .

. . . they’re not here to steal your soul.

Their taste runs more to rabbits. SO many rabbits!

Also, members of this lynx lineage don’t always live in the forest. Bobcats, besides inhabiting desert regions, are comfortable in swamps and landscaped areas like golf courses. They have even denned up in empty buildings!

What’s the difference between a bobcat and a lynx?

Short answer: It’s two-fold:

  1. Bobcats are a separate species: Lynx rufus.
  2. They’re probably the oldest living member of this multi-million-year-old lineage.

Details: People have been fascinated by lynxes for centuries. The fur is valuable, and we anthropomorphize their sharp-eyed, bearded faces into something that can see things hidden from us.

Scientists, of course, are more objective, but they had trouble fitting lynxes into the Family Felidae until genetics came along.

One version of the cat family tree, via Wikimedia

Now molecular tests, as well as careful study of lynx anatomy, show that this group of wild cats deserves its own branch on the cat family tree.

Go far enough back in time, and you can connect lynxes to the puma and domestic cat branches, along with one on which sits the leopard cat’s group of small Asian cats (despite the name, these aren’t closely related to the leopard).

Taxonomists call such a “supergroup” a clade. In plain English, this means that, long ago, the Felis, puma, and leopard cat lineages all shared a common ancestor.

Molecular studies suggest that the first lynxes diverged from other members of this clade between 7 and 12 million years ago. (Johnson and others; Nyakatura and Bininda-Emonds)

The modern lynx lineage then showed up, according to genetic testing, anywhere from 3.5 million (Li et al.) to 5 million (Nyakatura and Bininda-Emonds) years ago.

That’s way older than Fluffy’s group.

Not much to look at until you realize that these “L. issiodorensis” fossils are over a million years old. (Image: Ghedoghedo via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

No one knows exactly where lynxes evolved, even though the most ancient living species (the bobcat) is a North American native.

The oldest recognized lynx fossils come from Pliocene Europe, but the same species (Lynx issiodorensis) also lived in eastern Asia. (Kurtén; Kurtén and Werdelin) It could have crossed the Bering Land Bridge into North America during one of the many drops in global sea level down through geologic time.

At one point, paleontologists suspected that lynxes — which do resemble caracals — might have evolved in Africa, but the only lynx fossils there are relatively young, from the Pleistocene. (Werdelin et al.)

These could have been immigrants from Eurasia.

However they developed, four lynx species are spread across the northern continents today:

  • Bobcats: Besides being the oldest, Lynx rufus is also the smallest lynx species, though it’s still bigger than a house cat. Bobcats weigh between 13 and 45 pounds and stand 20 to 24 inches tall at the shoulder.

    They range from southern Canada through the US into Mexico as far south as Oaxaca State, but most of the world’s bobcats live in the Lower Forty-Eight (except Delaware, for some reason). They need cover as well as sheltered den sites, but bobcats do use a wider variety of habitats than other lynxes.

    Red-list status: Least Concern. (Cat Specialist Group; Wikipedia, 2019a)

    Bobcats are surprisingly common in Tucson, Arizona. This one looks relatively young and may be a dispersing subadult. Whoever made this video was wise in not approaching the cat.

  • Canada lynx: This medium-sized cat ranges across North America, through the boreal forest of Alaska and northern Canada. It’s also found in a few US states (chiefly Washington, Montana, Minnesota, Maine, and, thanks to reintroduction, Colorado).

    While generally a little bigger than the bobcat, Canada lynxes aren’t as aggressive and generally give way whenever the two meet. Such encounters apparently are not always hostile, though — hybrids of these two lynx species have been found in some places.

    It takes some working out. These Canada lynxes were filmed in Ontario.

    Lynx canadensis is very leggy. Its hind limbs are so much longer than the front ones that the cat’s back actually slopes forward when it’s walking (the cats above are angry and have taken poses that make it easy to fight with their front paws).

    The paws are basically “snowshoes”: toe bones are spread very wide apart and dense fur grows between the paw pads. This lets the Canada lynx move more efficiently in deep snow than other carnivores, which in Yellowstone, as just one example, include pumas, bobcats, gray wolves, coyotes, flexes, wolverines, badgers, and bears.

    Red-list status: Overall, Least Concern, but locally things can be worse. The Canada lynx has Threatened status in the United States, while in New Brunswick and Cape Breton it is Endangered. It has been extirpated from Prince Edward Island and mainland Nova Scotia. (Cat Specialist Group; Van Valkenburgh)

    Classic Canada lynx. (Keith Williams, CC BY 2.0)

  • Eurasian lynx: Weighing up to 55 pounds and standing almost 30 inches high, this is the only lynx big enough to routinely prey on small- to medium-sized hoofed prey like deer and chamois. (Here is one taking a deer — not for the squeamish.)

    Lynx lynx has one of the biggest ranges of any cat — from Atlantic Europe through Russia’s boreal forest (especially south Siberia from the Urals to the Pacific), as well as down into Central Asia and the Tibetan Plateau.

    You’re most likely to find it in open woodlands that support hoofed plant eaters and provide cover, but the Eurasian lynx also sometimes inhabits grasslands and semi-arid habitats. It rests in dense cover during the day and comes out a little before sunset, hunting in twilight and then again around dawn. This secretive cat is rarely seen.

    Red-list status: Overall, Least Concern, but isolated subpopulations are considered Endangered or Critically Endangered. (Breitenmoser et al.; Cat Specialist Group; Wikipedia, 2019b)

  • Iberian lynx: Until recently, Lynx pardinus was one of the rarest cats in the world, with fewer than 50 mature individuals in just two tiny breeding populations in Spain. Intensive conservation efforts, which are ongoing, have increased that number to 156 (as of 2012).

    The problem was not just human-related activities, such as hunting and habitat changes. It was loss of prey. Iberian lynxes are about the same size as their Canada cousins, and like them, specialize in rabbits and hares. Prey numbers on the Iberian Peninsula fell dramatically because of rabbit diseases and other factors, and so did the lynx population.

    An added complication, in an area, vulnerable to wildfires and other natural disasters, where people need land for many uses, is the Iberian lynx’s requirement of a mosaic of open land where it can hunt, and maquis thickets/ other Mediterranean forest with oaks and abundant undergrowth to shelter in.

    500 cats, but not all of them are mature adults capable of breeding and keeping this species going.

    What’s all this about rabbits?

    Seriously, hares, rabbits, and their relatives are 80% to 100% of an Iberian lynx’s diet, while the Canada lynx depends on the snowshoe hare for 60% to 97% of its food. (Cat Specialist Group)

    They will eat other food, if necessary, but the lack of lagomorphs, as the rabbit group is called, has almost extinguished the Iberian lynx. And Canada lynx numbers rise and fall in 10-year cycles linked to similar changes in the snowshoe hare population, which is affected by a variety of factors.

    Eurasian lynxes are large enough not to depend on such small prey, but bobcats mostly eat rabbits and hares; still, they’re more likely than Canada and Iberian lynxes to spread out into other menu options ranging from rodents to white-tailed deer.

    All of this leads Kitchener et al. to speculate that the lynx lineage might have evolved to exploit lagomorphs when they first expanded across the northern continents. That hasn’t been proven yet, but it’s a fascinating idea.

    So .. . did we then evolve for this?

    Featured image: Skeeze at Pixabay, public domain.


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