Iberian or Spanish Lynx : World’s most threatened cat

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Iberian Lynx (Attribution - Programa de Conservación Ex-Situ del Lince Ibérico)

Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus), also known as Spanish Lynx or Pardel Lynx, is an inhabitant of Iberian Peninsula located in Southern Europe. It is the only wild feline, which is categorized as critically endangered (means facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild) by many institutions, including the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (CITES)

Considered a subspecies of the Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx), in the past, Iberian lynx is now a separate species. Both species occurred together in central Europe in the Pleistocene period, being separated by habitat choice. All four species are believed to have evolved from Lynx issiodorensis, also known as Issoire Lynx.

In 2012 Iberian lynx’s genome was sequenced, according to the announcement made by researchers. They also announced about their plans of genetic testing of the remains of long-deceased lynx to quantify loss of genetic diversity and improve conservation programs. In December, the same year, it was reported that researchers had identified remains of 466 Iberian lynx in museums and private collections. The unfortunate part was that about 40 per cent of the estimated specimens were already lost over the preceding 20 years.

This cat is now found only in isolated areas of Spain and possibly Portugal. The latest census from Spain indicates 84 to 143 adults are surviving in two breeding populations in the Coto Doñana (24-33 adults) and near Andújar in the eastern Sierra Morena (60-110 adults). These populations are isolated from one another making them even more vulnerable. Besides their isolation, current numbers are also not sufficient for the survival of the species in the long term. This has pushed the cat to the brink of extinction. The latest population estimates show a Spanish drop of more than 80 per cent since the last survey (1987-1988) suggested as many as 1,136 lynxes. A similar fall of 80 per cent was estimated in Spain for the period 1960-1978

In these cats genetic diversity is lower than in any other felids known to be genetically poor, including the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), Scandinavia’s Eurasian lynx and Ngorongoro crater lions. Researchers are of the opinion that this may be a result of declining population sizes coupled with isolation. A study published in 2013 pointed towards a strong genetic differentiation between the Doñana and Andujar populations, due to both allelic frequencies and allelic composition. Doñana lynxes have separated more from the ancestral population as a result of their lower population size and longer isolation. The researchers believe that bringing the two groups together will lessen the degree of inbreeding.

Description

Iberian lynx also possesses the typical characteristics of lynxes, which include short tail, tufted ears, long legs and a ruff of fur that looks like a “beard”. It has tawny colored and spotted pelt. There used to be some western populations, which were spotless but they are now believed to be adapted to colder environments.

The cat’s head and body length is 85 to 110 cm, with the short tail an additional 12 to 30 cm; the height at the shoulders is 60 to 70 cm. Males are larger than females, with the average weight of males about 13 kilos and maximum of 27 kilos, compared to an average of about 9.5 kilos for females, which is about half the size of an Eurasian lynx.

Iberian lynxes are very specialized hunters. They have certain adaptations that better their ability to skillfully catch and kill small prey. They have a foreshortened skull to maximize the bite force of canines. Their muzzles are narrower and the jaws are longer with smaller canines than animals that feed on larger prey.

Habitat

Till mid-19th century Iberian lynxes were found over whole of the Iberian Peninsula, located in the extreme south-west of Europe. In 1950s it was divided between northern population, spread over Galicia and parts of northern Portugal and extending to the Mediterranean, and southern population, running in various parts of Spain. Now it is confined to very limited areas of southern Spain, with breeding confirmed only in two areas of Andalucía. These cats prefer habitat which has open grasslands with dense shrubs such as juniper, mastic and trees such as strawberry, cork oak and holm oak. Today the cat is restricted largely to mountainous areas, with very few groups visible in dense maquis shrubland or the lowland forest area.

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A rabbit specialist

Iberian lynx is a rabbit specialist. Its diet consists of about 79 to 87 per cent of European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), about 6 per cent hares (Lepus granatensis) and about 3 per cent of rodents. Males normally require one rabbit per day, while females, those bringing up cubs, will eat three per day.

With low ability to adapt, these lynxes are unable to change their diet drastically if rabbit populations decline sharply. This is the reason that a sharp drop in the population of its main food source, as a result of two diseases, contributed extensively in the decline of feline’s population. Myxomatosis which spread to Iberia after a physician intentionally introduced it in France in 1952, and hemorrhagic disease beginning in 1988. There were two major outbreaks of the latter in 2011 and 2012. Recovery has occurred in some areas. In December 2013, however, it was reported that wildlife officials were concerned about the spread of a new strain of the hemorraghic disease, affecting mainly young rabbits.

Lynx’s main habitat, scrubland, lost to human developmental activities such as roads, dams and changes in land use has affected very badly to the lynx populations.

Iberian lynxes that are most active during twilight and at night, stick to their preferred diet of European rabbits and to some extent hares and rodents, however, they very occasionally also go for birds, amphibians, reptiles, young roe deer, mouflon and fallow deer. Its competitors are wildcats, red foxes and the Egyptian mongoose (Herpestes ichneumon).

Iberian Lynx range map

Like most cats this is also a solitary hunter and stalks its prey or lie in wait for hours behind a rock or bush until the unsuspecting prey is sufficiently close to be pounced upon in a few strides.

Lynx, especially with younger animals, roams widely, with ranges reaching more than 100 km. Its territory, which usually spreads over 10 to 20sq. km, is dependent on the availability of prey in the area. Adult males usually need a minimum of 5 to 20 sq. km, and a population of 50 breeding females requires about 500 sq. km area. Nevertheless, once established, range-sizes tend to be stable over many years. The boundaries of these ranges are often being along the man-made roads and trails. Cats mark their territories with their scratch marks left on tree trunks, droppings and the urine sprays.

Reproduction

In Iberian lynxes estrus peaks in January. Their typical gestation period is of approximately two months. After a successful mating cubs are born between March and September, with a peak of births in March and April. Usual litter size is of two or three kittens weighing 200 to 250 grams. Female may re-enter estrus if gestation is interrupted or the litter is lost prematurely. Kittens become independent by the time they are 7 to 10 months old, but they remain with the mother until they are 20 months old. Both males and females reach sexual maturity by the time they are a year old, but they rarely breed until a territory becomes vacant; there is an example in which a female was known not to breed until five years old when her mother died.

It has been observed that kittens show violent behaviour towards one another when they are one to two months old, peaking at 45 days. Sometimes they become so violent that they even kill their littermate in a brutal fight. The cause of this aggression is not known. However, many scientists are of the opinion that the behaviour is related to change in hormones, which takes place when a cub switches from mother’s milk to meat. According to others it is related to hierarchy, and the principal of “survival of the fittest.”

Due to very low population these cats are now finding it difficult to have a partner, which is leading to more and more inbreeding. This results in fewer cubs and a greater rate of non-traumatic deaths. Inbreeding leads to inferior semen quality and greater rate of infertility among males, which hampers efforts to increase the species’ fitness. The maximum longevity of these cats in the wild is around 13 years.

Conservation

As is already mentioned, Iberian lynx is the most threatened species of wild cat in the world and the most threatened carnivore in Europe. If it were to become extinct, it would be the first big cat species to do so since Smilodon populator 10,000 years ago. Its small number makes it especially vulnerable to extinction due to events such as a disease or natural disaster.

Meanwhile, captive breeding and reintroduction programs have helped in increasing their populations. As of 2013, Andalusia had a population of 309 lynxes living in the wild. As an attempt to save the species from extinction, a project is being started that will include lynx population monitoring, rabbit population management and habitat preservation. Efforts are also being made to reduce unnatural causes of death, and captive breeding for release.

The Spanish National Commission for the Protection of Nature has approved the Iberian Lynx Ex Situ Conservation Breeding Program to serve as a “safety net” by managing the captive population and also to “help establish new Iberian lynx free-ranging populations through reintroduction programmes.” The lynx’s habitat are now fully protected, and they are no longer legally hunted.

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Threats

Iberian Lynx (CC BY 2.5)

Threats to the cat’s existence include habitat loss due to infrastructure improvement and fragmentation, occasional outbreaks of feline leukemia, vehicle strikes, poisoning, illegal poaching and the menace of feral dogs. Chronic renal illness affects some captive animals. In the 20th century, rabbit diseases such as myxomatosis and hemorrhagic disease resulted in a dramatic decline of its main prey; outbreaks have been reported in 2010s. Accidental deaths are the major cause of unnatural death; 14 deaths were reported in 2013 on Spanish roads. Illegal traps set for foxes and rabbits are other foremost causes for lynx fatality.

A study reported in 2013 that the digestive tracts of these lynxes contain antibiotic resistant bacteria. This is a dangerous situation in the sense that whenever the cat gets infected it would become extremely difficult, if not impossible to treat it and ultimately it will affect its health. Another study published the same year suggested climate change may also threaten this species due to its inability to adapt well to new climates. This will ultimate lead to its relocation to areas that have more suitable climate but fewer rabbits may again pose threat to its existence.

Visualizing the above problems management efforts are now being worked out to conserve and restore the animal’s native range. Officials proposing for release of captive-bred lynxes are looking for areas which have right kind of habitat, rabbit abundance, and acceptance by the local human population. About 90 million Euros were spent on a range of conservation measures between 1994 and 2013. The European Union contributes up to 61 per cent of funding.

Decline in populations

The species population has declined by about 80 per cent in the last twenty years. In 1960 its estimated number was 4,000, which came down to about 400 in 2000. It further declined to less than 200 in 2002, and possibly as low as 100 in March 2005.

Until 2007, when a previously unknown population of around 15 individuals in Castile-La Mancha (central Spain) was discovered, Doñana National Park and the Sierra de Andújar, Jaén had the only known breeding populations. In 2008, the Doñana population was assessed at 24 to 33, while the Sierra Morena group was believed to number 60 to 110 adults. The total numbers were estimated to be in the range of 99 to 158 adults, which also included the La Mancha population. The cat was therefore listed as Critically Endangered under C2a(i) on the IUCN Red List.

Iberian lynx’s reintroduction into Guadalmellato in the beginning of 2009 resulted in a population of 23 in 2013. Since 2010, the species has also been released in Guarrizas. According to a report, Andalusia’s total wild population, which was only 94 in 2002, tripled to 309 in April 2013.

The existence of the cat in Portugal (especially in the south) has been verified, but there is no substantiation of reproduction. In July 2013, environmental groups established the presence of a wild-born litter in the Province of Cáceres (Extremadura). Nature Climate Change published a study in July 2013, which recommended that reintroduction program should take place in northern Iberia, suggesting that climate change would threaten rabbits in the south.

Since the outbreak of feline leukemia virus (FeLV) in 2007, wild lynxes are being periodically tested for possible disease. Samples taken in September–December 2013 were found negative for FeLV but one male became the first of its species to test positive for feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and was quarantined.

Captive breeding

The Jerez Zoo confirmed in 2002 that it was planning a captive breeding program of Iberian lynx with three females. Of these females Saliega, captured as a cub in April 2002, was the first to breed in captivity and gave birth to three healthy kittens on 29 March 2005 at the El Acebuche Breeding Center, in the Doñana Nature Park in Huelva, Spain. Encouraged with the results additional breeding centers were opened at various places in the following years and this increased the number of births. According to a report made public in March 2009, the number of captive born kittens reached 27 since the beginning of the program. Encouraged with the captive breeding efforts, the Spanish government planned in 2009 to build breeding center in Zarza de Granadilla costing €5.5 million and Portugal also established a breeding center in Silves.

There were 14 surviving cubs in 2008 and 15 in 2009, but in the following year intense rain and health issues resulted in lower reproductive success—14 born, 8 survived. Fortunately, 45 births were recorded in 2011 of which 26 kittens survived. In 2012, breeding centers in Spain and Portugal registered 44 survivors from 59 births, while 2013 saw a total of 44 survivors out of 53 born.

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