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Parry Sound Nature Club tracks Ontario’s big cats - Bobcats and Lynx are on the move

By Helen Kohl

Unlike most Georgian Bay inhabitants, Dr. Jeff Bowman frequently spots lynx and bobcat in the wild. Every winter, he and a team of Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry

researchers track these elusive felines across the northern edges of Lake Huron.

Most of us, if we’re lucky enough to spot one, can identify a lynx by its long ear-tufts. We’d also have to be well into our snow zone. Lynx live further north than bobcats because they thrive in -14 degree C snowy environments. “They have larger paws, fur rather than footpads, and longer legs to help them travel long distances,” says Bowman. “We track them by following their distinct footprints in the snow.”

The bobcat, in contrast, is a smaller cat that lives in more southerly climes. It’s got shorter legs and can be tracked by its footpad prints in the dense snow and dirt where it travels. Bowman and his team are investigating whether snow and habitat conditions that have been affected by climate change are affecting these big cats’ migration patterns. They are also investigating whether bobcat or lynx genetic makeup is adapting to changing migratory patterns. They do know that the lynx-hare connection is unchanged. The population of lynx and snowshoe hare—its most common prey—has been rising and falling in lock-step across Canada for hundreds of years. Hares become abundant across the country at the same time, providing lynx with plenty of food. As a result, the hare population begins to shrink, resulting in a decline of the lynx population…which eventually—within a decade—results in an increase in hares.

Climate change has, however, changed these cats’ migratory patterns. Each lynx hunts hare and its other prey in a huge 77-km-square- sized territory covered in deep snow and boreal coniferous forest. But today’s deep snow is as much as 175 kilometers further north than it was in the 1970s. As a result, the southern range of our lynx is expanding northward.

Each bobcat hunts animal and bird carcasses over a much smaller 11-square-foot territory, in less treed, snowless, or denser snowed areas. With climate change, they can now hunt further

north. Bobcats are now coming to us from the lower peninsula of Lake Michigan every winter, and are abundant along the Highway 11 corridor. Bowman’s team has spotted one as far south as Kingston and found another in temporary digs near a bountiful deer roadkill dump outside Espanola.

Bowman and his team are now looking into whether cats’ DNA changes to help them adapt to climate change. It’s possible, for instance, that “clock” genes—specialized genetic tissue that helps animals adapt to changing temperatures and daylight hours—can “reset” to provide them with more effective breeding and mating times that accommodate their changed migratory patterns.

Thanks to Dr. Jeff Bowman, who provided this information at the Parry Sound Nature Club’s September 21st presentation!

Go the the Parry Sound Nature Club’s Facebook to learn about the club’s next presentation, Personality, Individuality, and the Social Behaviour of Bats, on Wednesday, October 19.


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