Canada lynx : Snowshoe hares are favourites


Canadian lynx by Keith Williams (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

The Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) or Canadian lynx, a North American cat, is a close relative of Eurasian Lynx (Lynx lynx). However, in some characteristics it is more like the bobcat (Lynx rufus). Larger than the bobcat, with which it shares parts of its range, Canada Lynx is found across Canada and into Alaska as well as some parts of the northern United States.

Similar to Eurasian lynx

Canada lynx appears similar to Eurasian lynx, but is smaller in size. It has dense coat of silvery-brown colour with possibility of blackish markings, long furry tufted ears, furry ruffed face resembling a double-pointed beard and a short tail with a black tip. Bearing a resemblance to other species of the mid-sized Lynx genus it is over twice the size of a domestic cat. In summer, its coat takes on a more reddish brown colour. Its long legs, broad furred feet with a large gap between the first and second toes and the big toe set at a wide angle gives them a better vicelike grip on the snow.

It has an average weight of 8 to 12 kg and the length of 85 to 105 cm. Shoulder height is 45 to 56 cm. Females are smaller than males. Even though the species is larger on average than the bobcat, it is less variable in size and the largest bobcat outsize the lynx.


There had been debates over whether to classify the species as Lynx canadensis or Felis canadensis, part of a wider issue regarding whether the four species of lynx should be given their own genus, or be placed as a subgenus of Felis, but the Lynx genus is now accepted.


Three subspecies of the Canada lynx are currently recognised:

  • L. canadensis mollipilosus
  • L. canadensis canadensis
  • Newfoundland lynx (L. canadensis subsolanus): It is larger than the mainland subspecies, and is known to kill caribou calves when its main food snowshoe hares are not available.


Canada lynx portrait by Michael Zahra (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Canada lynx can be active during any time of the day, but usually their activity starts after the sunset. Highly secretive by nature they shelter in areas of dense forest. Although normally solitary, at times small groups may be observed traveling together. It tends to stay within a hundred yards of the treeline, but does not shy away from swimming. According to one recorded account a lynx was found swimming two miles across the Yukon River. In the areas where their range overlaps with that of other predators, such as coyotes and bobcats, they tend to hunt in places with deeper snow cover, or at higher altitudes.

The animal’s home ranges are usually spread over 15 to 50 square km, but depending on the availability of prey they are highly variable, with extremes from 5 to 785 sq. km. Lynxes on an average roam about 2.5 to 5 km each day in search of food and when it becomes scarce, the territory increases; most animals will travel to far off places with a select few staying back in the original territory.

Like other cats, Canada lynx too use scent marking to specify their territory. In addition to using visual markings on trees they also deposit faeces on tree stumps or on top of the snow or any other such places. They frequently spray urine at prominent sites to mark their range.

Snowshoe hares are the favourites

Canada lynx are solitary hunters, but the females and cubs have been seen hunting together in highly coordinated manner. While one animal will flush out the prey out of its hiding place, others will wait a short distance away to pounce upon. The Great Horned Owl too often takes the advantage of lynx’s efforts. It will perch on a nearby branch while the cat is busy in pushing the prey out. As soon as the hapless victim is out in the open the owl swoops down and grabs it before the cat can realize what has happened.

About 60 to 97 per cent of Canada lynx’s diet is consists of snowshoe hares; as a result the lynx population depends heavily on rise and fall of hare’s numbers. In summer, these cats also prey upon birds and rodents and sometimes hunt larger prey such as deer and even go for carrion if situation arises.

Canada lynx consume around 600 to 1,200 g of meat daily for which they hunt every one to two days. These cats use their large ears and eyes to seek out prey. They do not have much stamina; whilst they are fast over short distances, they are unable to maintain the speed for more than a few dozen paces, consequently, if they fail to catch the prey within first few seconds, they generally give up the chase. Since they are unable to chase the prey for longer distances they hunt both by ambush and by actively seeking out prey, varying their tactics depending on the terrain and relative abundance of prey species.

Like many other cats lynx too hide their quarry if they are unable to finish it in one sitting and return to consume it later. They drag it to a hiding place which can be inside the bush or under a rock and cover it with leaves or any other material

Like all lynx, this species too has 28 teeth, with four long canines that are used for puncturing and gripping. Large spaces between the four canines and rest of the teeth and a reduced number of premolars, ensure that the bite goes as deeply as possible into the prey. In addition to this canines are heavily laced with nerves which help it to get a feel of the place it is biting. Four carnassials are used to cut the meat into small pieces.

Reproduction and life cycle

Although the breeding period for the species lasts for a month, depending on the local climate, the breeding season can spread over from March to May. During this time females attract males by repeated calling and leaving their scent by urinating at prominent places. It is the time when females come into oestrus for three to five days. Mating can take place five to six times in an hour, but the female will mate only with one male in a season. Males usually mate with more than one female.

After the mating is successful female searches for a safe and secured place, which can be a very thick brush, woody debris, inside shrub thickets or trees, where she prepares a maternal den. These dens are generally situated mid-slope and face south or southwest. After the gestation period of about 65 days blind and helpless cubs are born in May or early June. Litters usually contain one to four cubs, but tend to be much larger when prey is in abundance.  This behaviour shows a greater degree of reproductive flexibility in Canada Lynx compared to other cats. It has also been observed that when prey is scarce females often do not mate at all. Perhaps it is their instinct that tells them it is better not to have offspring rather than starving them to death. This instinctive decision is supported by the fact that when cubs are born in lean years infant mortality may reach as high as 95 per cent.

At birth cubs weigh 170 to 240 g and have greyish buff fur with black markings. After fourteen days their bright blue coloured eyes are opened, which turn to brown-hazel as they mature. Cubs start coming out of the den after about five weeks and are weaned at twelve weeks. They begin hunting along with their mother when they are 7 to 9 months old. Prior to this mother brings live food and allows the cubs to play with it before eating, thus training their hunting skills.

Cubs leave their mother when they are around ten months old, as the next breeding season begins. Females reach sexual maturity at ten months, although they often delay breeding for another year, while males attain full adulthood when they are two or three years old. In captivity these cats live up to fourteen years, although the lifespan is likely much shorter in the wild.

Distribution and habitat

The existence of Canada Lynx depends almost entirely on the presence of snowshoe hare, which is its main food. Found in northern forests across almost whole of Canada and Alaska the cat is not found in the relatively treeless regions of the Great Plains and the northern coasts, which are beyond the natural range of snowshoe hares. There are large populations of this cat in various regions of USA, which include Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, but is quite rare in New England, Utah and Minnesota. On the whole it is a threatened species in the contiguous United States.

Canada Lynx distribution map (Attribution – Chermundy and IUCN Red List of Threatened Species)(CC BY-SA 3.0)

In Newton Abbott, in the United Kingdom, a Canadian lynx was shot in 1903 after it attacked two dogs. Nobody could make out which cat is this so it was preserved in Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. Over a century later scientists identified it after a detailed analysis. Their conclusion was that someone kept it as an exotic pet or it may have been part of a traveling menagerie from where it escaped. They considered it “the earliest recorded example of an exotic cat on the loose in the UK.”

In 1999 a program of reintroducing lynx population of 96 individuals back to Colorado, where it had become extinct in the 1970s, was started by the Colorado Division of Wildlife. In 2003 when wildlife officials visited various lynx dens they found 16 native-born Colorado lynx. Next year, 39 new kittens were identified. By 2010, after an 11 year effort, it was finally confirmed that the animal had been successfully reintroduced into its historical range, where red squirrel is an important secondary food source when snowshoe hares are in short supply.

In 2007 quite a few of these lynxes were killed by unknown persons. In many of the cases animals were just shot dead and the body left intact, but in other cases only the radio tracking collars were found, leading to suspicions of fur poaching.


However, the IUCN has listed Canada lynx as a species of Least Concern, its number has declined in many areas due to trapping for fur trade and habitat loss. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, on March 24, 2000, issued its Final Rule, which labelled the cat a Threatened Species in the lower 48 states.

Interestingly, in the northern parts of Canada, its population can be estimated from the records kept from the number caught each year for its fur. These records have been kept by the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Canadian government since the 1730s.

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