This Small Cat Spotlight features the Canada lynx. Read on to learn about the species’ range, ecology, anatomy and Panthera’s work in Canada to help protect it. Join Dr. Wai-Ming Wong, Panthera's Small Cat Conservation Science Director, as he ventures into the snowy forests of North America to unveil the truth about this secretive cat.
The Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) is one of the largest species of small cats in the world. It is the second largest of the four members of the Lynx family — bigger than the Iberian lynx and bobcat but much smaller than the Eurasian lynx, the planet’s largest small cat, on average. The Canada lynx can weigh up to 37 lbs. (17 kg), smaller in comparison to Eurasian lynx, which can weigh over 60 lbs (27 kg). Canada lynxes look strikingly similar to bobcats, with black-tufted ears and a facial ruff. In general, they appear larger than bobcats due to their long hindlimbs. They also have a thick, silvery coat and large dense paws that are specifically adapted to living in cold, snowy climates. This dense fur often makes the species appear larger than it actually is.
Distribution and Habitat:
Canada lynxes inhabit most of the forested areas of Canada and Alaska. In the lower 48 United States, they can also be found in small populations in boreal and sub-boreal forests in the Pacific Northwest, the northern Great Lakes region and in parts of New England. Canada lynxes were reintroduced to Colorado from the Yukon in the 1990s and have since dispersed as far south as New Mexico. All Canada lynxes prefer coniferous (trees with needles and cones) forests with cold temperatures — Canada lynxes have even been recorded swimming in areas where temperatures have been as low as -27 degrees Celsius (-81 degrees Fahrenheit).
Ecology and Behavior:
Canada lynx exhibit some of the most dramatic natural population cycles of any mammal. These 10-year population cycles closely follow the population cycles of their main prey, the snowshoe hare, which can make up to 97 percent of a Canada lynx’s diet. Lynx population cycles are most dramatic across northern Canada and Alaska, where Canada lynx may rely almost entirely on snowshoe hare as prey and where the hares themselves undergo dramatic population cycles related to the availability of their own food and predation by Canada lynx. In the north, Canada lynx populations may be 10-15 times higher during the peaks of their cycle, with peaks in Canada lynx occurring the year following peaks in snowshoe hares.
During periods of low snowshoe hare numbers, during summers, or in areas where snowshoe hares are less abundant Canada lynx will include other prey in their diet, including small rodents, birds, juvenile deer and even mountain sheep.
Male Canada lynxes have larger territories than females, which are typically over 700 square kilometers. Both male and female territory sizes are highly dependent on adequate populations of snowshoe hares, especially in the northern part of the cat’s range, where this prey occurs in lower densities. Males and females will come together during the spring breeding season to produce litters of up to eight kittens. After approximately 10-17 months, these cubs will disperse, with males offspring often dispersing long distances (one young male was recently tracked with a GPS collar while he dispersed over 2,000 miles from Alaska to the Northwest Territories!) while some female offspring may find a home nearby. Following this, Canada lynx mothers practice a unique behavior: they will sometimes collaborate with their adult daughters and occasionally hunt together.
In their natural habitat, Canada lynx typically have a lifespan of up to 16 years. The variability in their lifespan is heavily influenced by the fluctuating populations of snowshoe hares, a critical factor in their dietary and ecological balance. They also sometimes fall prey to hungry wolves, pumas, coyotes, wolverines and the rare bobcat.
Threats and Panthera’s Work:
Canada lynxes are listed as Least Concern by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. They are primarily threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation, especially in the lower 48 United States. While 95 percent of the species’ historical range in Canada is still intact, its territory in the United States is far more fragmented.
In addition to habitat loss and forest clearing, lynxes in the U.S. may be struck by a car on a highway or poached for their fur. Legal overhunting also has the potential to devastate lynx populations, while climate change poses both immediate and future threats to the fragile ecosystems on which Canada lynx rely. Canada lynx have evolved thick coats allowing them to occupy cold forests and huge paws that allow them to hunt on deep snow, adaptations which their competitors like coyotes do not have. As climate change results in warmer winters with less snow, Canada lynx lose their advantages and can be outcompeted and pushed out by the more generalist coyotes expanding into lynx range.
Panthera Canada is dedicated to monitoring lynx populations in the country’s northwest. Some of our work includes identifying and protecting critical habitats for Canada lynx in British Columbia.
Together, we can protect small cats like the Canada lynx. To learn more about all small cat species, make sure to follow us on social media. Check out our other Small Cat Spotlights. You may have heard about Canada lynx before this blog, but there’s 32 more species of small cats to explore — some of them very obscure!