Species Fact: Canada Lynx


Even its scientific name — Lynx canadensis — tells you where this famous cat dwells. However, Canada lynx are also common in Alaska, and a few are known in the Lower 48, too.



Outstanding Features:

  1. The most common and widespread wild cat in Canada. That said, lynx are less common in eastern Canada than they used to be, although they still cover 95% of their historical range in this country. (Poole; Vashon)
  2. Can move more easily through deep snow than any other carnivore in the region. It’s possible thanks to oversized “snowshoe-style” paws that have lots of dense fur growing in between the toe pads. (Cat Specialist Group; Kitchener et al., 2010) These also help the Canada lynx “paddle” through deep snow, as shown in this amazing video towards the end, when “Mad Max” is stalking the hare.

  3. The only cat known to have prey-driven population cycles. All cats suffer when there isn’t much to eat, and their numbers increase when there are lots of prey animals around. Generally, though, this happens periodically due to a number of factors. Canadian lynx, on the other hand, mostly depend on snowshoe hares. Hare populations have a “boom/bust” cycle that plays out over roughly 8 to 11 years. The lynx undergo the same thing, starting about a year after hare numbers begin to decline. It happens at the same time across the whole country and it’s serious business — according to an estimate by Poole (see source list), the total lynx population in Canada when hares are at a peak may be over 500,000; then it drops to around 50,000 when the hares cycle through a “bust.” This isn’t anything new — it even shows up on fur trading records that go back to the early 1800s! And rather than go extinct, Canada lynx seem to have adapted by boosting their reproduction during good years and traveling farther afield, sometimes hundreds of miles, when hares are scarce. (Cat Specialist Group; MacDonald et al.; O’Donoghue et al.; Poole)
  4. Hybridizes with the bobcat Canada lynx and bobcats have one of the best documented hybrid zones in the cat family. There are several hybrid groups along the US border, which is the general area where the two ranges meet. Genetic testing suggests that this has been going on for quite a while, too. (Li et al.; Schwartz et al)


This information is from the Cat Specialist Group, except where noted.

Jeremiah John McBride, CC BY-ND 2.0

  • Weight: 18 to 27 pounds.
  • Height at the shoulder: 19 to 22 inches. (Wikipedia, 2020)
  • Body length: 29 to 42 inches.
  • Tail length: 4 to 6 inches.
  • Coat: Reddish brown to grayish brown, with hairs tipped in light gray or white. During winter, the coat is much thicker and lighter colored. All-black lynx haven’t been reported, but there is a “blue lynx,” especially in Alaska, that may be a partial albino mutation. The underparts are lighter colored. Canada lynx have indistinct spotting, especially compared to the very dramatic spots on the Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus). Their long fur makes Canada lynx appear larger than they really are (twice as big as a house cat but only half the weight of a Eurasian lynx). Their tail is ringed, with a black tip, and they have long black ear tufts like all lynx as well as a ruff of fur all around their face that’s especially heavy in wintertime. (Allen et al.; Cat Specialist Group; Poole)
  • Vocals: There’s not much about this in reports, but there are some dramatic videos of loud arguments between two male Canada lynx during breeding season, including this one:

  • Litter size: 1 to 8. During the “bust” part of the snowshoe hare cycle, lynx may not have any kits at all, but they seem to make up for it in later years when hares are thriving. (Cat Specialist Group; O’Donoghue et al.; Poole)

Where found in the wild:

While this is the only cat in the Americas to live exclusively in the north, you still won’t find a Canada lynx where there aren’t any hares. This rules out Canada’s central plains as well as humid forests on the western coast.

Treeline still marks the northern boundary of lynx country, but this cat’s southern and eastern ranges have shrunk. It’s rare in the east and has actually been extirpated from Prince Edward Island and mainland Nova Scotia.

Historically, Canada lynx used to roam across several northern US states. Today, while common in Alaska, breeding lynx populations are known in only four of the Lower 48 states: Washington, Montana, Minnesota, and Maine. A few have been sighted in a handful of other states, too.

Reintroduction of the Canada lynx was tried in New York state during the 1980s, but it failed. At present, there is a reintroduced population in the Colorado Rockies, but the jury is still out on whether this attempt will work out.


Eric Kilby, CC BY-SA 2.0

  • Range of environments: Canada lynx follow snowshoe hares through taiga and mountain forest environments — basically patches of spruce, fir, and other conifers, mixed in with varying amounts of hardwoods like aspen, birch, and maple trees. They will cross open meadows and farmlands, and even swim across rivers, but they don’t linger in such places. The ideal habitat for a Canada lynx is a forest that burned or was otherwise disrupted 20 years or more earlier and has now come back with open canopy and the sort of dense understory that hares prefer. Old logging sites also work, but these tend not to have the downed trees or upturned stumps that Canada lynx use to raise a family.(Cat Specialist Group; O’Donoghue et al.; Poole; Vashon)
  • Tim Rains/NPS, CC BY 2.0

  • Prey base: Seriously. Up to 97% of the diet is snowshoe hare, per the Cat Specialist Group. When that’s not abundant, particularly in the southern parts of the range, Canada lynx will eat other small birds and mammals. They can even take down deer, sheep, and caribou calves, though they seldom do.
  • Example of guild: Greater Yellowstone’s predator guild includes pumas, Canada lynx, bobcats, wolves, coyotes, red foxes, wolverines, badgers, black bears, and grizzly bears. (Van Valkenburgh)

    Coyotes and bobcats may compete with the northern lynx — this seems to be the case in eastern Canada and along the southern part of the Canada lynx’s range. Coyotes also prey upon Canada lynx, as do wolves, wolverines, and other lynx.

Red-list status:

Least concern.

Canada lynx are legally trapped in the northern parts of their range — in Alaska and several Canadian provinces — without negative effects on their overall numbers. However, this is reduced or stopped during the “bust” years of the lynx/snowshoe hare population cycle.

And it’s illegal in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, where the lynx is considered to be endangered. In the Lower 48, Canada lynx are listed as “threatened” in 14 states and no trapping is allowed.

Featured image: Eric Kilby, CC BY-SA 2.0.


Allen, W. L.; Cuthill, I. C.; Scott-Samuel, N. E.; and Baddeley, R. 2010. Why the leopard got its spots: relating pattern development to ecology in felids. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 278(1710): 1373-1380.

Cat Specialist Group. 2020. Canada lynx. http://www.catsg.org/index.php?id=97 Last accessed January 7, 2020.

Johnson, W. E.; Eizirik, E.; Pecon-Slattery, J.; Murphy, W. J.; and others. 2006. The Late Miocene Radiation of Modern Felidae: A Genetic Assessment. Science, 311:73-77.

Kitchener, A. C.; Van Valkenburgh, B.; and Yamaguchi, N. 2010. Felid form and function, in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, ed. Macdonald, D. W., and Loveridge, A. J., 83-106. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kitchener, A. C.; Breitenmoser-Würsten, C.; Eizirik, E.; Gentry, A.; and others. 2017. A revised taxonomy of the Felidae: The final report of the Cat Classification Task Force of the IUCN Cat Specialist Group. https://repository.si.edu/bitstream/handle/10088/32616/A_revised_Felidae_Taxonomy_CatNews.pdf

Li, G.; Davis, B. W.; Eizirik, E.; and Murphy, W. J. 2016. Phylogenomic evidence for ancient hybridization in the genomes of living cats (Felidae). Genome Research, 26(1): 1-11.

Macdonald, D. W.; Loveridge, A. J.; and Nowell, K. 2010b. “Dramatis personae”: An introduction to the wild felids, in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, eds. Macdonald, D. W., and Loveridge, A. J., 3-58. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

O’Brien, S. J., and Johnson, W. E. 2007. The evolution of cats. Scientific American. 297 (1):68-75.

O’Donoghue, M.; Slough, B. G.; Poole, K. G.; Boutin, S.; and others. (2010). Cyclical dynamics and behaviour of Canada lynx in northern Canada, in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, eds. Macdonald, D. W., and Loveridge, A. J., 521-536. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Poole, K. G. 2003. A review of the Canada lynx, Lynx canadensis, in Canada. The Canadian Field-Naturalist, 117(3): 360-376.

Schwartz, M. K.; Pilgrim, K. L.; McKelvey, K. S.; Lindquist, E. L.; and others. 2004. Hybridization between Canada lynx and bobcats: genetic results and management implications. Conservation Genetics, 5(3): 349-355.

Van Valkenburgh, B. 1989. Carnivore dental adaptations and diet: A study of trophic diversity within guilds, in Carnivore Behavior, Ecology, and Evolution, Volume 1, ed. Gittleman, J. L., 410-436. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Vashon, J. 2016. Lynx canadensis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T12518A101138963 https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/12518/101138963

Werdelin, L.; Yamaguchi, N.; Johnson, W. E.; and O’Brien, S. J.. 2010. Phylogeny and evolution of cats (Felidae), in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, eds. Macdonald, D. W., and Loveridge, A. J., 59-82. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wikipedia. 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canada_lynx Last accessed January 7, 2020.

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