By Sylvia Feder
Earnest Thompson Seton, a well-known naturalist and writer, wrote in 1925 that the lynx “lives on rabbits, follows the rabbits, thinks rabbits, tastes like rabbits, increases with them, and on their failure dies of starvation in the unrabbited woods.”
The rabbits Seton referred to are snowshoe hares, and there are few predators as dependent on a single prey item as the lynx is on the snowshoe hare. Specialists are usually far scarcer than generalists; consider the rare black-footed ferret, a specialist on prairie dogs and his far more common relative, the opportunistic weasel.
Could this be the reason that lynx are thought to number fewer than 200 individuals in Washington state, while bobcats are the feline equivalent of the coyote?
Superficially, the two cats are very similar. Common wisdom considers lynx to be the larger of the two, but in fact a male bobcat may outweigh a male lynx. Lynx appear larger because they have longer legs and are often heavily furred. Adults of both species weigh approximately 20 pounds, females slightly less, males slightly more, light-colored cats with short trails and pointy ears. It would be difficult to tell the two apart with the quick flash of movement that is all we ever see of most mammals when hiking.
But if you could get a lynx and bobcat to stand still for examination, you would see clear differences.
These differences in appearance provide clues to the cats’ differing lifestyles in our woods and mountains. Perhaps if you didn’t get a good enough look at your elusive feline, you can deduce the species from these clues.
The lynx has longer legs and longer fur. The fur is gray, sometimes with pale spots, compared to the bobcat’s brown or reddish coat with more distinct spotting. While both have short tails, the bobcat’s tail is barred while the lynx has only a black tip. The lynx also has a fuller facial ruff and elegantly tufted ears. Most dramatic, though, are the lynx’s feet, which are broad and heavily furred, giving it the appearance of wearing snowshoes.
As Seton explained, the lynx and snowshoe hare are linked inextricably; the lynx’s huge furry feet enable it to skim across deep snow to capture its prey. Because of these built-in snowshoes, lynx have a competitive advantage over other predators in areas of heavy snowfall. Some studies have found that hares comprise up to 90 percent of the lynx’s diet.
As the hare goes, so goes the lynx. In Washington, snowshoe hares and therefore lynx, are associated with large expanses of subalpine and boreal conifer forests, generally above 4,000 feet in the Cascades. If you are hiking in such an area when you see a wild cat, you may have seen a lynx.
In that case, you are lucky hiker indeed. Even in good habitat, lynx are rare, probably due to the fragmented and patchy distribution of this habitat and the density of hares needed to support a viable lynx population. In addition, those hares are a fickle food source. Their populations rise and fall in approximately 10-year cycles, based on a variety of factors ranging from predation to food availability. When hare populations plummet, lynx suffer. To find food, they may disperse, often ranging long distances. One male lynx that was tracked from Washington to British Columbia traveled nearly 400 miles in about 6 months.
If, on the other hand, your elusive feline sighting was in the snow-free temperate rain forest or low-elevation grassland, it is much more likely to be a bobcat. Bobcats are less picky about their diet, feeding on small mammals, birds, even reptiles and the occasional fawn or injured deer. This adaptability allows them to range throughout much of low-elevation Washington, in a variety of habitats including the fringes of suburbia. For example, bobcats are spotted occasionally along the Cedar River Trail less than 30 miles from Seattle.
From the generalist to the specialist, our wild felines have taken two different strategies for survival. Understanding these strategies affords us a peek into their hidden lives and elusive ways.