The lynx of the West are one of the most remarkable specialized creatures to inhabit northern snowy forests. Its closet relatives are tigers and lions. Yet our much smaller cat possesses, arguably, a combination of traits exclusive to lynx.
Some colleagues have compared the physique of the lynx to that of "the perfect baseball player," and rightfully so. They are gangly, with powerful jackrabbit hindquarters and size 18 paws. Gray in color, prominent black tip on stubby tails, black tufts on ear points and, if they live to the ripe old age of 10, they will sport a sagacious white goatee. A full-grown male may reach about 30 pounds while females are a bit smaller.
The lynx is a powerful, feared hunter. Its ability to pounce within a couple of bounds is legendary. With claws that have instantaneous retractable, spring-loaded, razor-sharp switchblades, it severs its victim's spine or crushes the wind pipe. Lynx are specialists. They depend on snowshoe hare populations as their main food. About every 10 years snowshoe hare populations boom. Soon thereafter, with predictable regularity, they bust. A lean hare year means that many lynx die from starvation.
Snowshoe hares, as the name implies, are specialists too. They live in the snowy north-country preferring either recently burned jack pine forests with rich supplies of densely staked inner pine bark or perpetually saturated muskeg black spruce forests. Black spruce branches naturally touch the forest floor and are able to root, a process called layering. This provides an important, edible young inner bark as a source of food for hares.
Male lynx will lick and smell female urine before mating. Multiple copulations occur before impregnations and males depart soon after mating. Females require ancient forests for denning, which can occur beneath upturned roots of a wind-thrown tree, inside the hollow of a log or under an overhanging bank. Kittens are born nine weeks later and will stay with mothers for up to one year. In lean hare years, lynx will mate and either females will naturally abort or feed themselves first whilst kittens perish. Adults need a hare, a grouse, a tree squirrel, even a fox, every day or two.
Lynx have many intriguing adaptations. For instance, the hairs on their ear tufts are extremely sensitive to vibrations and act like antennas to help locate precisely the sounds of small prey. They are excellent swimmers, surpassing dogs, but slower than caribou.
You may have noticed that cats have sandpaper-like tongues which serve as a body-cleaning tool. But also the rough spikelets on the upper surface, called papillae, rasp meat from the bone. Hence cats, which cannot crack bones like dogs, lick the bone clean.
While lynx normally hunt alone, they are the only North American cat to cooperate with others of their kind. Typically, these hunting parties consist of a mother and her older kittens, but occasionally a male and a female, or even two family groups, hunt and even travel together.
Lynx need wilderness and wildfires. Though we may never glimpse this bearded recluse, it's both exciting and encouraging to know that they may have watched us in the wild northern forests of the West.
Dr. Reese Halter is a conservation biologist at Cal Lutheran University, public speaker and founder of the international conservation institute Global Forest Science. Follow him @twitter.com/DrReeseHalter.