Name: In some languages, this is called the “red lynx” — that’s why its scientific name is Lynx rufus. But early English settlers in North America were more fascinated by that short tail. To them, it was a “bobbed cat.”
Another name for bobcats is “wildcat.” This may seem a little strange to people from Europe, Asia, or Africa who only know the original wildcat — Felis silvestris.
F. silvestris never made it to the Americas (though a close relative, the domestic cat, traveled there with the first Europeans).
Lynxes did reach North America. And now it’s bobcats, not true wildcats, that call to one another here, through echoing forests or, as in this video, across the still desert air.
- How to tell bobcats and Canada lynxes apart. These two species mingle on either side of the US/Canada border. If you see a lynx-like cat in this part of the wild, check out its tail: the tip of a bobcat’s tail is black on top and white underneath; the Canada lynx has a completely black tail tip.
If you’re lucky enough to get a really close view, are the paws unusually large? Then that’s probably the Canada lynx, which has evolved a sort of “snowshoe”; bobcat paws are more proportional (which means these cats can’t handle deep snow as well as Canada lynxes do). Bobcats also have a shorter beard and ear tufts, as well as a somewhat smaller head.
- The most common North American wild cat. Not even pumas outnumber bobcats here. That’s a surprise, since pumas range over far more ground — from the tip of South America up into the Yukon. My guess is that this is because the bobcat has larger litters and is better able to tolerate people — for instance, you won’t see pumas relaxing by a swimming pool like this.
- The oldest lynx species. Lynx evolution has confounded paleontologists down through the years. Today’s genetic testing helps clear up some of the mystery. Molecular markers suggest that lynxes last shared a common ancestor with other lineages — puma and Felis — back in the Miocene, some 7 to 12 million years ago. Then ancestral lynxes took off on their own evolutionary path, eventually producing the bobcat about 3.5 million to 5 million years ago, during the Pliocene epoch. The other three lynx species showed up a little later, in early Pleistocene times. (Gradstein et al.; Johnson and others [younger dates]; Nyakatura and Bininda-Emonds [older dates]; Werdelin et al.)
- Hybridizes with the Canada lynx. Bobcats and Canada lynxes have one of the world’s best documented hybrid zones, extending along both sides of the US/Canada border. DNA studies indicate that this interbreeding probably has been going on a long time, though it’s not widespread enough to threaten either species with something called “cryptic extinction” — where an animal looks the same on the outside but has lost its original genetic heritage through interbreeding with other species. (Kelly et al.; Li et al.; Macdonald et al., 2010a)
Data: This information is from the Cat Specialist Group, except where noted. Bobcat size varies quite a bit across its wide range, with the largest animals most commonly seen in the north.
- Weight : 13 to 44 pounds
- Height at the shoulder: 12 to 24 inches. (Wikipedia)
- Body length: 20 to 47 inches.
- Tail length: 4 to 10 inches.
- Coat: The thick, soft fur comes in more colors than red, including tan, brown, yellowish brown, tawny, and pale gray — it all depends on where the individual lives. Coat patterns vary, too. Some bobcats are unmarked, while others have brown or black spots and/or stripes. All bobcats have light-colored fur on the underparts, sometimes with dark marks. A few black (melanistic) bobcats, and some albinos, have been seen, too. Like all lynxes, bobcats have black ear tufts, but these and the famous lynx “beard” aren’t as fully developed. Bobcats often curl their tails, displaying the white side prominently, likely as a visual signal to other bobcats. (Cat Specialist Group; Ewer)
- Litter size: 1 to 8. In addition, Ewer notes that bobcats may sometimes have two litters per year.
Where found in the wild:
Bobcats are widespread, but during most of the 20th century, they disappeared from much of the midwestern US.
In the 1990s, conservation measures, reintroductions, and the bobcat’s own resilience brought these lynxes back to every Lower 48 US state except, for some reason, Delaware.
Winter snow depth probably limits their range in the north – bobcats can’t handle deep snow like the Canada lynx can.
Far to the south, in Mexico’s Oaxaca State, competition from the margay, ocelot, jaguarundi, and jaguar probably keeps bobcats from spreading any farther down into Central America.
- Range of environments: Bobcats have been seen from sea level up to more than 11,000 feet on Mexican volcanoes. They seem to prefer low to middle elevations, and woodlands rather than open areas. However, as long as prey is abundant and there’s enough cover for hunting and raising families, the bobcat is comfortable almost everywhere — from northern conifer stands, through bottomland hardwoods and coastal swamps in the South, to the Southwest’s arid grasslands and thorn scrub. In Mexico, bobcats also prowl through tropical dry forests of pine, oak, and fir trees. They live in some urban areas, too, like Tucson, Arizona — there doesn’t seem to be much resulting conflict, just many online videos of a beautiful but wary lynx, quietly hanging out in the back yard or on the porch.
- Prey base: Bobcats share the Canada lynx’s taste for rabbit and hare. They’re not as dependent on this prey as their northern cousin is, though, and will also take a variety of small mammals and birds — whatever’s most abundant in their area. Occasionally a bobcat may even crave seafood.
- Example of guild: In Pleistocene times, bobcats in what is now Yellowstone Park had to deal with dire wolves and sabercats, in addition to modern coyotes, pumas, wolves, and bears. (Van Valkenburgh) Nowadays, other predators that bobcats may encounter across their wide range include coyotes, foxes, pumas, raccoons, skunks, and even domestic dogs and cats. Don’t feel too sorry for them. In the north, bobcats are both aggressive and large enough to take territory from the Canada lynx. In southern Texas and northwestern Mexico, they can outcompete ocelots in conifer woods or dry habitats. Farther south, though, in the tropical forests, margays and jaguarundis, as well as ocelots, probably have the edge. (Sanchez-Cordero et al.; Major and Sherburne; McCord)
Least concern. That’s despite bobcats being the most heavily harvested cat species in the fur trade. This practice appears to be sustainable, but there are issues. For more details, see the Cat Specialist Group’s bobcat page and the IUCN’s latest assessment.
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Featured image: docentjoyce, CC BY 2.0.
Cat Specialist Group. 2020. Bobcat. http://www.catsg.org/index.php?id=96 Last accessed January 7, 2020.
Chamberlain, M. J.; Leopold, B. D.; and Conner, L. M. 2003. Space use, movements and habitat selection of adult bobcats (Lynx rufus) in central Mississippi. The American Midland Naturalist, 149(2): 395-406.
Ewer, R. F. 1973. The carnivores. The World Naturalist, ed. Carrington, R. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
Gradstein, F. M.; Ogg, J. G.; and Hilgen, F. G. 2012. On the geologic time scale. Newsletters on Stratigraphy, 45(2): 171-188.
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.
Kelly, M.; Morin, D.; and Lopez-Gonzalez, C.A. 2016. Lynx rufus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T12521A50655874 https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/12521/50655874
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
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Macdonald, D. W.; Loveridge, A. J.; and Nowell, K. 2010. “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.
Macdonald, D. W.; Yamaguchi, N.; Kitchener, A. C.; Daniels, M.; and others. 2010a. Reversing cryptic extinction: the history, present, and future of the Scottish wildcat, in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, ed. Macdonald, D. W., and Loveridge, A. J., 471-491. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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Sánchez-Cordero, V.; Stockwell, D.; Sarkar, S.; Liu, H.; and others. 2008. Competitive interactions between felid species may limit the southern distribution of bobcats Lynx rufus. Ecography, 31(6): 757-764.
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Wikipedia. 2020. Bobcat. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bobcat Last accessed January 7, 2020.