Wildcats of B.C.

There are 37 species of wildcats in the world, of which 3 occur in British Columbia:

  • Cougar
  • Lynx
  • Bobcat

The cats of the world are divided into two groups, large cats (or great cats) and small cats. These names may be a bit of a misnomer however as they do not necessarily refer to size! The distinctions between these two categories can seem uncertain. Differing characteristics include such ideas as small cats’ inability to roar (only able to yowl), the shape of the pupils (with slit-shaped in small cats and round in large cats), and possibly even the form while crouching with small cats tucking the legs into the body like housecats, and large cats resting with their feet straight ahead like dogs.

Almost all of the world’s cats are extremely solitary animals. In many instances, the females raise the cubs without the aid of the father, actually avoiding the father for fear that he may kill the kittens. Wildcats are some of the most specialized predators in the world. All cats except for the cheetah have retractable claws and maintain sharp daggers for grappling with and holding on to prey; flexible backbones allow these ambush predators to pivot sharply when chasing prey in bursts of speed; keen sight and hearing allows many species a competitive edge in the world of darkness and twilight.

The cats of B.C. are solitary hunters and are capable of hunting prey much larger than themselves. Often, they cache their food (cover it with dirt, twigs, etc.) to conceal it from other predators and scavengers so that they can return several times to feed. A cougar may return to a kill site for as long as two weeks. As well, this allows the cats to avoid gorging which would draw oxygen away from their brains making them drowsy and vulnerable to other predators.

Cats have a particular territory which they will defend. Male territories are much larger than female, and may in fact include the territories of several females with which he will mate. The cats of B.C. are referred to as induced ovulators, meaning that the females will ovulate only in response to numerous copulation. For a species such as the cougar this may amount to hundreds of times over.

CougarĀ (Felis concolor)

Species Information
The largest of British Columbia’s cat species is the cougar. A male cougar may weigh between 68-100 kg. with females weighing half as much. From nose to tail-tip a cougar is normally 6 feet in length ( one record breaking cougar shot in B.C. measured an astounding 9 feet!! ) Although colour may vary somewhat in darkness, one of the distinguishing characteristics of the cougar is its uniform colour. Its Latin name Felis concolor refers to “a cat of one colour”. As a cub however, cougars bear a more striking resemblance to their spotted cousins as they have ringed tails and spotted coats. While the size of a cougars territory depends greatly on the type and availability of food it can be in the order of 350 square km for males and 150 square km for females.

  • Hear a cougar’s growl

Distinguishing Characteristics

  • as stated earlier the cougar is the only Canadian cat of uniform colour at adulthood
  • tracks are roughly 10 cm by 10 cm with four toe marks and rarely claws

Diet
By far the favourite prey of the cougar is deer. Wherever cougars occur, they are the single greatest predator of deer (in fact, many biologists, have offered that proper management of cougar populations is done through proper management of deer populations). Cougars however, are by no means limited in what they can eat – they have been known to feed on squirrels, insects, rabbits, porcupines, birds, fish, elk, and even moose (which can weigh 5X more than a cougar!)

Population Status

In B.C. Healthy Estimated population: 3,500
In Canada Healthy Estimated population: 4,000

*Note: Vancouver Island may hold the world’s highest concentration of cougars!

Distribution
The cougar is the most widely distributed land animal in the Western Hemisphere, occurring from southern Alaska south to Patagonia! This fact makes the cougar unique in another manner as well, being an influence on so many different cultures over its large range, the cougar has more names than any other animal in the world – nearly 90!! Some popular examples include cougar, mountain lion, puma, catamount, painter, devil cat, and deer cat. In B.C., cougars occur primarily in the southern third of the province.

Threats to Survival
The largest threat to cougars is loss of habitat. Not only does this decrease their prey supply (usually deer) it also results in increased encounters between humans and cougars – often ending badly for the cougar and sometimes for humans as well.

Lynx (Lynx canadensis)

Species Information
Mid-size between the cougar and the bobcat, but lighter than the bobcat, lynx are the wildcat of Canada’s cold country. Standing about thigh high, a lynx weighs between 5 to 18 kg. The lynx is well adapted to the boreal forest habitat of Canada and Alaska. Thick warm fur together with a natural tolerance to cold temperatures helps the lynx withstand the harsh climate – the lynx can even be found north of the Arctic Circle! Long legs combined with oversized hairy feet aid in movement through snow when ambushing prey.

All of these adaptations make the lynx extremely well adapted to catch its favourite food – the snowshoe hare. However, snowshoe hares are not always in abundance. Almost every ten years the numbers of hares crashes dramatically in a natural food cycle. This happens roughly synchronously from coast to coast. The effect is obvious; the lynx, designed so well to catch rabbits now find themselves without sufficient food. Many starve, unable to eke out an existence on other prey. Some travel long distances in search of a new food supply. During these periods, lynx and hare numbers may fall to as little as 5% of their original numbers. This cycle can be traced back every ten years for roughly 250 years through the Hudson’s Bay trapping records.

Distinguishing Characteristics

  • large face ruff and long ear tufts
  • tail-tip black on top and bottom
  • tracks are large compared to body size (12 cm by 9 cm) with four toes often obscured by hairy soles (claw marks are rarely seen)

Diet
Favourite food is by far snowshoe hares but may also prey on mice, birds, beavers, squirrels, deer, and even calves of caribou and moose!

Population Status

In B.C. Healthy Estimated population: 20,000 to 50,000
In Canada Healthy Uncertain Population: 10′s to 100′s of thousands

Distribution
Forested areas and boreal forests of Canada and Alaska. In B.C., lynx occur in the majority of provinces and territories, excluding Vancouver Island and the Coastal Mainland.

Threats to Survival
One of the biggest threats facing the lynx is loss of habitat. Lynx need a combination of forested areas for cover from which to ambush prey.

Another pressure facing the lynx is the fur trade. In Canada every year, between 5-50,000 lynx are “harvested” for their furs. With the highly variable population levels of the lynx the trapping industry needs to be sensitive and responsive to changes in conditions and supply from year to year.

In 1973, CITES (the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species) was created. Following this, all large cats (leopards, cheetahs, jaguars, etc.) were listed as Appendix I, prohibiting their international trade for commercial purposes. In response to this, the demand for spotted cats shifted to the numerous small cats of North America which were primarily listed under Appendix II. The intense trade that followed, in species such as ocelot, margay, bobcat, and lynx, through periods of abundance and scarcity, had an impact from which we are still recovering.

Bobcat (Lynx rufus)

Species Information
The smallest of British Columbia’s three cat species, the bobcat is about twice the size of a housecat (7-13 kg). Range can vary considerably depending on the type of prey available. In areas where bobcats prey largely on rodents they may live in habitat that is the size of a city block in areas where prey is larger or less abundant they may range 350 square km. Bobcats can live in a variety of habitat types from swamps, to deserts, to forests and can prey on species from squirrels, to birds, to small deer and elk! In more southerly ranges, biodiversity increases and the types of prey available to bobcats increases.

Distinguishing Characteristics

  • spotted coat
  • relatively small ruff (side whiskers) and small tufts on the ends of ears
  • tail all white underneath with bars on upper surface
  • much smaller tracks than lynx or cougar, roughly 4 cm by 4 cm, with claw marks rarely visible

Diet
Dependant largely on their location. Bobcats in different areas can include such critters into their diet as mice, fish, snakes, birds, carrion, small ungulates (such as deer), and in cases such as deep snow even adult ungulates! Like its cousin the lynx, the bobcat is also a major predator of the available rabbit or hare species.

Population Status

In B.C. Healthy Estimated population: 5,000 – 10,000

Distribution
The bobcat can be thought of as the “southern equivalent” of the lynx. Where lynx tend to prefer colder climes, bobcats live in any variety of warm weather habitats. Bobcats range over much of the contiguous United States, parts of Canada, and south into central Mexico. Bobcats can live fairly close to urban areas and seem much more tolerant of humans than lynx.

Threats to Survival
The bobcat is the chief trade species for cats in the United States. In British Columbia, lynx make up the primary cat trade but nearly 150 bobcats can be traded annually. While bobcat numbers appear healthy care must be taken to regulate and monitor this trade. See threats to lynx .