(Photo: a Canadian lynx walks through the snow)

The Canadian lynx is a species of wildcat rarely seen in Atlantic Canada. It was destroyed on PEI, the Nova Scotian mainland and over much of New Brunswick. Thankfully, some persist in northern New Brunswick, on Cape Breton Island and on Newfoundland.
Photo by Keith Williams

Feast or famine, as the old saying goes. We either have too much or too little, never just what we need. This is doubly true of the Canadian lynx.

Here’s an animal which resembles a housecat in build and mannerism, but the lynx is much larger, with long legs and ears, and large paws ideal for walking and hunting in deep snow. Its fur is grey, brown and white with dark spots and streaks. An adult measures a little under a metre long and weighs 8–10 kg. The black tufts of hair at the end of their ears are characteristic of this wildcat and are longer on the lynx than on its near cousin the bobcat, giving them an exotic, even majestic quality.

Although visually appealing, this wildcat is very rarely seen, considering its nocturnal habits and its shyness where humans are concerned. There’s also its population, which varies dramatically depending on the year.

The lynx has a fascinating relationship with its primary food source, the snowshoe hare, which goes through cycles of abundance and scarcity every decade like clockwork. First, the hares become populous, consuming much of their habitat’s available food and becoming fat with success. Then they begin to starve and fall victim to their multiple predators, allowing their habitat to recovery while their population plummets. Once food is again abundant, the hares begin their cycle from the start. The lynx population follows behind that of the snowshoe hare, indulging in the feast and suffering through the famine without deviation. This strange dance between predator and prey plays out every 8–11 years, resulting in frightening dips and climbs in the numbers for both species.

This wildcat has done alright for itself, all things considered, surviving in the northern regions of nearly every Canadian province and some of the northernmost states, but on the East Coast they’ve seen better days. They were eradicated completely from PEI as well as from the Nova Scotian mainland, and, for a time, it was thought New Brunswick lynx had been destroyed also. Thankfully, some survive in northern New Brunswick to this day. In Newfoundland, blessedly, the lynx is not considered at risk.

Because of the incredible variations in their numbers from one year to the next, it’s difficult to say exactly how many lynx are left on Cape Breton.

There’s a small population surviving on Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island as well, avoiding the fur trade by hiding in the Cape Breton Highlands, not unlike the pine martens discussed in a previous Endangered Perspective. Because of the incredible variations in their numbers from one year to the next, it’s difficult to say exactly how many lynx are left on Cape Breton. During their feasting years, perhaps 500. In their famine years, closer to 50.

Unfortunately, lynx in New Brunswick haven’t been well studied. For this reason, we aren’t certain how many are left. Both this and the Cape Breton population are considered at risk.

Their sudden decline historically might have been due in part to their dramatic shifts in population. Trapping lynx during their famine years would have had significantly greater consequences for their overall population than during their feast years. Competition with animals like the coyote, a species better adapted to a human dominated world, might be hindering recovery today, along with habitat destruction, illegal harvesting, accidental trappings and climate change.

I have never encountered the Canadian lynx, but I suspect anyone who has was surprised to find such a proud and unique predator still living out its quiet existence on our coast. It’s easy to forget that our abused forests yet contain such elusive beauties.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance environmental journalist, author, and writer of Shades of Green. He operates out of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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