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So you think you’ve spotted a lynx! But what kind is it? Canadian, Iberian, Eurasian? Or could it be something else altogether – a bobcat?

Despite the name, Canadian lynx are not exclusive to Canada. In fact, despite being so elusive they’re often forgotten, these felines are quite prominent in the northern parts of the contiguous US. Lynx call parts of the Pac Northwest, forested mountain ranges, New England, and most of Alaska their home. If you’ve seen a furry, snow-loving wild cat in the United States, it very well may be lynx!

If you think you’ve spotted some kind of lynx, but aren’t sure which it is, here’s a quick checklist to help keep them straight.

Can you tell which is which at a glance?

Lynx is a lynx by any name… or so one might think! There are four species in the Lynx genus:

They’re all closely related, so they do share a lot of significant characteristics. All four of these cats have plush, speckly fur, ear tufts, big paws, short tails, a neck ruff, and other unique attributes. They also live solitary lives, eat similar diets, and have that reclusive lynx-ish behavior. 

But they are definitely not interchangeable. Here’s how to tell the difference.

Check your location

If you’re anywhere in North America, your lynx is neither Iberian nor Eurasian. Eurasian lynx, as the name implies, live in Europe and Asia. They can be found across Russia, Scandinavia, Siberia, parts of China, and other areas in this part of the world. They’re well-distributed and have a stable population. Iberian lynx, on the other hand, are exclusive to certain areas in Spain. Beyond having a tiny, well-studied range, they are extraordinarily rare. 

Bobcats live in almost every state in the contiguous USA. Their territory extends north into parts of Canada, and south into most of Mexico. In truth, there are only a few areas in the Lower 48 where bobcats don’t live. Unlike the other lynx species, bobcats aren’t exclusive to dense forest habitats. These cats are widespread and are quite comfortable in a broad range of habitats including mountains, swamps, and even deserts.

If your lynx was seen in Canada, chances are it’s a Canadian lynx. Lynx are a boreal species, meaning they prefer snowy taiga forests with lots of pines and spruce trees where they can hide. They’re the only cat native to Alaska, so any wild cat spotted in this state is almost certainly a lynx. They can be found in most of the state. In the Lower 48 states, you may spot a lynx living in Yellowstone, Washington state, Montana, Minnesota, New England, and high up in the mountains of Colorado.

Consider rarity

Canadian lynx are classified as Least Concern in their “normal” range. The subspecies that extends into the continental US, however, is considered endangered because of their low population. Lynx and the more-populous bobcats share territory in these areas, which creates competition for habitats and prey.

The Iberian lynx is considered the most endangered cat species in the world, with only a few hundred individuals left on the planet. Only extremely focused conservation efforts have helped keep the Iberian lynx off the extinct species list. These efforts have been so successful, in fact, that the species status was improved from Critical to Endangered in 2015. There are still only about 300 Iberian lynx in existence, and their population is carefully monitored.

Eurasian lynx are widespread in their territories in Siberia, Russia, and other parts of Asia and Europe. They’re considered least concern in most areas, but are still under significant threat, especially from habitat loss and fur trapping. 

Look for nearby animals

Canadian lynx love snowshoe hares more than anything else! They’re such big fans that the lynx’s territory is almost identical to that of their favorite prey. When snowshoe hares aren’t on the menu, Canadian lynx will eat birds, squirrels, and other small animals. Rarely, they’ve been known to take down animals as large as caribou when desperate.

Bobcats are not so picky. They’re happy to eat small mammals, birds, reptiles, insects, and even plants. Eurasian and Iberian lynx prefer a buffet of small animals native to their respective habitats. 

Look for physical attributes

When it comes to size, bobcats are the smallest lynx species. Eurasian are the largest, and Canadian are right in the middle.

Canadian lynx have a few distinctive characteristics: they have extra-big feet, long legs, and conspicuous black ear tufts. Their black-capped tails are even shorter than bobcats’ famously stubby tails! Lynx’s wide snowshoe-like feet help them walk through snow, and super long hind legs help them jump and run even in the deepest drifts. Unlike other lynx species, Canadian lynx have heathered grayish brown fun without too many spots. Their fur may have some patterning, but it’s subtle. This helps them stay hidden in the shadows of evergreens, even in the snow.

Eurasian and Iberian lynx are more brownish-red than their Canadian counterparts. They’re also more obviously spotted and have distinctive coat patterns. The smallish bobcats have stumpy tails, short ear tufts, and beautifully patterned spotted coats.

Think about what it’s doing

Long hind legs give Canadian lynx a forward-sloping lope when they walk. They can traverse deep snow with ease, but they’re not especially fast runners. They can burst with speed when necessary – and it often is necessary since their preferred meal can top 30mph even in the snow. Otherwise, Canadian lynx lie low. 

All lynx are masters of discretion. The word “lynx” comes from the Greek word meaning “to shine.” The animals probably earned this name because of their gleaming eyes peering out from the cover deep woods.

Lynx in the Lower 48

As robust as their populations can be in Canada and Alaska, lynx are quite rare in the continental United States. They live in pocketed populations and are state-endangered. Their biggest threats are logging, the continuing fur trade, and habitat fragmentation. Snowmobile trails, especially, have been a problem because the paths make it easier for cougars, coyotes, and bobcats to move into lynx territory. This increases hunting competition as well as increasing the odds of lynx becoming prey themselves.

Today, Canadian lynx populations in the continental US are quite isolated. Critical habitats include much of Maine, a portion of Minnesota bordering Lake Superior, the northern part of the Rocky Mountains in Montana, the Cascade Mountains in Washington, and areas of Yellowstone in Wyoming and Montana. They’ve also been seen in isolated patches in Idaho, New Hampshire, and Vermont. This may sound like a lot, but each lynx can require a large territory and they’re often mis-identified.

Lynx are a relatively uncommon cat, even in prime habitats. Because their habitats are so patchy and lynx are great at keeping a low profile, they can be difficult to research. We’re not sure exactly what the lynx population in the US is, but most agree that it seems to be declining.

Reintroduction efforts, however, are helping support the Canadian lynx population in the continental US. In the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, a population of around 200 lynx were released over a span of 20 years. Today, that population has held firm at around 150-200 cats. Even more encouragingly, researchers think the reintroduced lynx have expanded their territories.

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