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The Bobcat – Resilient Predator of North America

Sunday 9 December 2018

While many wild cat species around the world have suffered dramatically through loss of territory and a lot have become endangered species, there is at least some good news. The Bobcat, a wild cat synonymous of America has proved a resilient survivor. With a stable population this whiskered warrior persists and thrives in much of its original terrain.

Why has it survived when so many other cat species have become endangered or even extinct? The answer is in the size of its range, for sure, but also the sheer adaptability of the bobcat has ensured its survival. It is most happy in wooded areas but can also survive without problems in semi-desert and swampland areas as well as at the periphery of urban districts.

It has had time to adapt: the species has been around for so long that there are twelve recognized sub-species ranging from southern Canada to northern Mexico. It has been prying on rabbits, hares, rodents and deer for 1.8 million years, in fact, and made its first appearance in the Irvingtonian stage of the geological timescale.

Let’s do a comparison.  Homo sapiens appeared in Africa about two hundred thousand years ago, making the bobcat nine times older than us as a species. When you think that modern man only reached behavioural modernity around fifty thousand years ago then the bobcat as a species is positively ancient compared to us.

Yet when the bobcat arrived in the Americas it did look different – the modern version we see evolved around twenty thousand years ago.  However, its progenitors crossed the Bering land bridge many hundreds of thousands of years before that – and it is thought that these ancestors evolved from what was to become the Eurasian Lynx.

Although the bobcat resembles the Canadian Lynx, the latter arrived from Asia rather than Europe and settled in the north of the continent. However, despite their distant relationship there has been evidence of hybridization between the two species.

The coat of the bobcat is variable, according to the sub-species to which it belongs and the length of its coat seasonal. Tan to browny-gray they have black streaks on their bodies and bars on the tail and forelegs.  These patterns evolved as a form of camouflage – to keep it hidden from its prey in the dense woodland of America before European settlement.

As you might suspect, the bobcats in the south are lighter than those in the northern states. Melanism has also been known to occur and a number of melanistic bobcats have been caught in Florida.  Although they seem to the eye to be black at first they do still retain their patterns of spots and stripes.

The bobcat is a crepuscular creature and is at its most active from three hours or so before sunset until a couple of hours after sunrise.  Although they are more active during the day in winter, this is only because their prey is, because of the lack of food, forced to forage during the day time hours.

Although the territory of a bobcat varies in size they are very well defined and marked with urine and feces. The bobcat will also claw trees in its territory – a clear sign to other members of its solitary species to leave and find its own, unoccupied, place to live. Yet the male of the species is more tolerant of strangers wandering in to its territory – there is often even an overlap. Sometimes a hierarchy is established when there is multiple overlap with the most dominant male keeping the central and most favoured territory exclusively to himself.

Although the bobcat can go for a long time without food in lean period it will gorge itself when prey is plentiful.  Its chosen method of hunting is to stalk and then ambush, either with an athletic pounce or a short chase. Its favoured food is by far rabbits and hares. However, it is opportunistic (and not too fussy!) and unlike its cousin the Canadian Lynx will vary its food source if necessary.

Like all cat species, the bobcat is a ruthless hunter.

The bobcat breeds usually from its second years and litters usually have two to four kittens. However, litters of up to six kittens have been spotted.  The kittens are born fully furred but only open their eyes after more than a week.

Weaned at about two months they will be expected to hunt on their own by the fall of their first year. Once they can successfully hunt and look after themselves the kittens disperse to discover new territories for themselves.

The story of the bobcat is one of adaption, both to shifting climates and the intrusion of large bipedal mammals in to their historic ranges. The fact that they remain numerous and are not endangered is a testament to their ability to alter and adjust their natural behaviour to suit change.

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