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13 Furry Facts About Bobcats

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Graceful and stealthy, this North American cat is an extraordinary hunter with attitude to spare. Here’s a quick introduction to the often-seen, yet seldom-appreciated creature.

1. BOBCATS ARE SO NAMED BECAUSE OF THEIR TAILS.

Though many felines have long, sinuous tails, an adult bobcat’s averages just 6 to 7 inches in length; the word bobcat a reference to this stubby appendage. (In barbershop lingo, hair that’s been cut short is sometimes called “bobbed.”) Other names that these animals go by include bobtailed cats and wildcats—but neither of these names are generally accepted because there’s a breed of domestic cat called a bobtail cat, and wildcat is now generally restricted to members of Felis silvestris, an unrelated species.

2. BOBCATS AND CANADIAN LYNX ARE EASY TO TELL APART ...

While bobcats are actually a type of lynx (another accepted name for them is the bay lynx—more on that in a minute), in North America, the term is more generally associated with the Canadian lynx. On the surface, these two species look very much alike. Both, after all, are similarly-proportioned, mid-sized cats with stumpy tails and pointed ears. Still, some noticeable differences do exist between them.

First of all, the Canadian lynx is slightly bigger with longer limbs and larger feet. Another key dissimilarity lies in the fur: Bobcats have short, reddish-brown coats with well-defined spots while lynx are shaggy, grey, and have faded spots. If you were to compare their hindquarters, you’d notice that whereas a bobcat has black bands on its tail, a lynx’s tail only displays a solid, black tip. Finally, lynx ears have longer tufts.

But where these felines truly deviate from each other is in their lifestyle preferences. The lynx is a cold-weather cat that lives further north and at higher elevations. Their enlarged paws act like snowshoes, enabling the hunters to pursue such game as snowshoe hare with relative ease. Bobcats, in contrast, are built for warmer environments. Also, while lynx mainly eat hares, bobcats have a more varied diet and will readily hunt birds, small mammals, reptiles, and deer. Here’s another noteworthy tidbit: Bobcats tend to be much more aggressive—in fact, some zoo keepers call them the “spitfires of the animal kingdom.”

3. ... BUT THEY CAN HYBRIDIZE.

The Canadian lynx is found throughout its namesake nation and Alaska (as well as Colorado). Versatile bobcats live from Winnipeg to central Mexico. Occasionally, the felines will cross paths near the border between Canada and the lower 48 states. Sometimes these encounters are violent, but they can also be amorous: Since bobcats and lynx belong to the same genus (which, confusingly, is named Lynx), the two species are very similar at the genetic level. Over the past 15 years, a handful of confirmed hybrids have turned up in the northern U.S. The mix-matched predators tend to display a bobcat’s general build and the pointier ears of a lynx. In keeping with the tradition of giving delightful portmanteaux names to hybrid animals, these critters are now known as blynx.

4. BOBCATS TEND TO HUNT AT DAWN AND DUSK.

Wild bobcats do the majority of their hunting in low-light conditions. The animals usually wake up three hours before sunset and then go back to sleep at around midnight; they wake up again roughly an hour before dawn. In the early morning, the felines return to their slumber and the whole cycle repeats itself. (According to one study, they do adjust their schedules based on the lunar cycle.)

Bobcats are at their most active during the twilight hours, when potential targets like eastern cottontail rabbits tend to forage [PDF]. In the wintertime, though, food gets scarcer, which prompts some of the cats to change their schedules: Throughout the colder months, bobcats in northern states will often adjust their sleep regimen so that they can spend more time tracking down prey in broad daylight.

5. ADULTS CAN BRING DOWN ANIMALS THAT WEIGH SEVERAL TIMES MORE THAN THEY DO.

Fully-grown bobcats can weigh up to 33 pounds. For the most part, they eat rabbits, birds, rodents, and other fairly small creatures. However, the cats are also extremely adept at killing adult white-tailed deer. Although they generally hunt fawns, they have been known to kill adults, which can weigh 250 pounds or more. To slay such a large herbivore, a bobcat will jump onto its back and bite through the throat.

6. BOBCATS HAVE BEEN SUCCESSFULLY REINTRODUCED TO NEW JERSEY.

Decades of overhunting and deforestation meant that bobcats had been more or less eradicated from New Jersey by the early 1970s. In response, the state's Division of Fish and Wildlife began to import newly-captured specimens from Maine. Between 1978 and 1982, 24 of these New England bobcats were released into the northern part of the Garden State [PDF]. It would appear that this effort paid off: Since 1990, the local bobcat population has steadily grown, although the animals are mainly restricted to a few counties in north Jersey and the famous pinelands.

7. GIVEN THE OPPORTUNITY, ONE BOBCAT WILL GUARD SEVERAL DIFFERENT DENS.

Solitary hunters by nature, bobcats lay claim to an area of land that can be anywhere from 1 to 18 square miles in size (they tend to be smaller in summer and larger in winter). An individual bobcat will usually mark its territory by scratching up or excreting upon some strategically-located trees. Of the two sexes, females behave more aggressively towards intruders—especially other females.

On its home turf, the typical bobcat will stake out at least two or three different shelters. The most frequently-used is the “natal” den, which is often a cave or rocky, cave-like opening that the cats fill with dead plants for bedding. Additional abodes are known as “auxiliary” dens. Spread throughout the territory, these can take the form of anything from bushes to hollow logs. For females, the extra shelters are especially helpful. Mother bobcats move their kittens from one den to the next on a regular basis, which helps throw predators off the little ones’ scent.

8. BOBCATS ARE EXCELLENT CLIMBERS.

When threatened by a bigger carnivore, these cats will usually head for the safety of the nearest tree. Climbing amongst the branches also affords bobcats the opportunity to dine on nesting birds every so often. The felines have also been known to pounce onto unwary deer from overhanging tree limbs.

9. THEY LIKE TO COVER UP THEIR KILLS.

Bobcats can’t always consume their victims in one sitting. Sometimes, the carnivores use dirt, snow, leaves, or grass to bury the uneaten pieces of especially large corpses, and will return periodically to dig up their leftovers. This behavior is known as “caching,” and it’s also practiced by the North American mountain lion. Unfortunately, burying a corpse won’t guarantee that it won’t be discovered or nibbled on by other carnivores. Ravens, coyotes, bears, and those aforementioned mountain lions won’t hesitate to raid a bobcat’s subterranean stash if the opportunity arises.

10. AROUND SOME CITIES, THEY’RE BECOMING A COMMON SIGHT.

“We’ve got cats sleeping under roadways [and] hunting on golf courses,” biologist Julie Golla says in the video above. Over the past several years, she’s been collecting data on bobcats—specifically, those that now reside in the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area. Here, their population has been steadily rising, particularly in suburban neighborhoods. Far away from Texas, bobcats have also established themselves in the outskirts of Denver and Los Angeles. Interestingly, it looks like this urban lifestyle is turning the cats into night owls. Research conducted in the Los Angeles area shows that local bobcats are more fully nocturnal than their rural counterparts. This makes the big city felines less likely to encounter humans. Furthermore, LA’s bobcats deliberately avoid high-traffic footpaths in municipal parks.

11. SOME ANCIENT PEOPLE MIGHT HAVE KEPT BOBCATS AS PETS.

Back in the 1980s, the remains of a very young bobcat—which were originally misclassified as a puppy—were discovered beneath a 2000-year-old man-made grave in western Illinois. The plot in question was part of a much larger burial site created by a village aligned with the Hopewell Culture, a widespread group of related peoples who generally lived in small, isolated farming villages. Traditionally, when someone in a Hopewell community died, the deceased was laid to rest in a burial mound. While dog burials are known, they were in the villages, not the mounds. According to Hopewell expert Kenneth Farnsworth, “somebody important must have convinced other members of the society [to bury the cat in a mound]. I’d give anything to know why.” Scattered around its body were the beads of a necklace, which might have been used as a collar in life. Given these clues, some experts speculate that the animal was once a beloved pet.

12. THEIR ANCESTORS MIGRATED FROM EURASIA TO NORTH AMERICA.

The earliest known member of the Lynx genus evolved in Africa around 4 million years ago. Known to paleontologists as the Issiore lynx, this creature had a more housecat-like appearance than its modern relatives do, courtesy of the now-extinct cat’s shorter limbs and proportionally bigger skull. Over time, the Issiore lynx spread northwards into Eurasia. From there, it crossed the Bering Strait and entered North America. Today’s bobcats are descended from these Old World colonizers.

13. INVASIVE PYTHONS ARE A MAJOR THREAT TO FLORIDA’S BOBCATS.

Being a hunter doesn’t guarantee that you, in turn, will never be hunted. Owls, foxes, and coyotes regularly make off with bobcat kittens. Cannibalism is another big problem for these helpless infants, which are sometimes gobbled up by wandering adults (usually males) who belong to their own species. Fully-grown bobcats don’t have many natural predators, although mountain lions have been known to kill those that encroach on their territory.

But in recent years, the short list of carnivores that eat bobcats has grown one entry longer. Since 2000, a Burmese python epidemic has been constricting the Florida Everglades. For decades, exotic pet owners have released a steady stream of these Asian snakes into the region, where they now thrive. Capable of weighing 200 pounds, the pythons are large enough to consume dogs, deer, and even alligators. Perhaps unsurprisingly, at least one euthanized specimen has been found with a bobcat corpse in its stomach [PDF].

Pythons are also devouring the animals that bobcats depend upon for survival, including rabbits, raccoons, and rodents. Not coincidentally, the number of bobcat sightings in the Everglades fell by 87.5 percent between 2003 and 2011.

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Ted Cranford
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science
Scientists Use a CT Scanner to Give Whales a Hearing Test
Ted Cranford
Ted Cranford

It's hard to study how whales hear. You can't just give the largest animals in the world a standard hearing test. But it's important to know, because noise pollution is a huge problem underwater. Loud sounds generated by human activity like shipping and drilling now permeate the ocean, subjecting animals like whales and dolphins to an unnatural din that interferes with their ability to sense and communicate.

New research presented at the 2018 Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego, California suggests that the answer lies in a CT scanner designed to image rockets. Scientists in San Diego recently used a CT scanner to scan an entire minke whale, allowing them to model how it and other whales hear.

Many whales rely on their hearing more than any other sense. Whales use sonar to detect the environment around them. Sound travels fast underwater and can carry across long distances, and it allows whales to sense both predators and potential prey over the vast territories these animals inhabit. It’s key to communicating with other whales, too.

A CT scan of two halves of a dead whale
Ted Cranford, San Diego State University

Human technology, meanwhile, has made the ocean a noisy place. The propellers and engines of commercial ships create chronic, low-frequency noise that’s within the hearing range of many marine species, including baleen whales like the minke. The oil and gas industry is a major contributor, not only because of offshore drilling, but due to seismic testing for potential drilling sites, which involves blasting air at the ocean floor and measuring the (loud) sound that comes back. Military sonar operations can also have a profound impact; so much so that several years ago, environmental groups filed lawsuits against the U.S. Navy over its sonar testing off the coasts of California and Hawaii. (The environmentalists won, but the new rules may not be much better.)

Using the CT scans and computer modeling, San Diego State University biologist Ted Cranford predicted the ranges of audible sounds for the fin whale and the minke. To do so, he and his team scanned the body of an 11-foot-long minke whale calf (euthanized after being stranded on a Maryland beach in 2012 and preserved) with a CT scanner built to detect flaws in solid-fuel rocket engines. Cranford and his colleague Peter Krysl had previously used the same technique to scan the heads of a Cuvier’s beaked whale and a sperm whale to generate computer simulations of their auditory systems [PDF].

To save time scanning the minke calf, Cranford and the team ended up cutting the whale in half and scanning both parts. Then they digitally reconstructed it for the purposes of the model.

The scans, which assessed tissue density and elasticity, helped them visualize how sound waves vibrate through the skull and soft tissue of a whale’s head. According to models created with that data, minke whales’ hearing is sensitive to a larger range of sound frequencies than previously thought. The whales are sensitive to higher frequencies beyond those of each other’s vocalizations, leading the researchers to believe that they may be trying to hear the higher-frequency sounds of orcas, one of their main predators. (Toothed whales and dolphins communicate at higher frequencies than baleen whales do.)

Knowing the exact frequencies whales can hear is an important part of figuring out just how much human-created noise pollution affects them. By some estimates, according to Cranford, the low-frequency noise underwater created by human activity has doubled every 10 years for the past half-century. "Understanding how various marine vertebrates receive and process low-frequency sound is crucial for assessing the potential impacts" of that noise, he said in a press statement.

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Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Humans Might Have Practiced Brain Surgery on Cows 5000 Years Ago
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi

In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered a site in France containing hundreds of cow skeletons dating back 5000 to 5400 years. The sheer number wasn't surprising—human agriculture in that part of the world was booming by 3000 BCE. What perplexed scientists was something uncovered there a few decades later: a cow skull bearing a thoughtfully drilled hole. Now, a team of researchers has released evidence that suggests the hole is an early example of animal brain surgery.

Fernando Ramírez Rozzi, a paleontologist with the French National Center for Scientific Research, and Alain Froment, an anthropologist at the Museum of Mankind in Paris, published their findings in the journal Nature Scientific Reports. After comparing the opening to the holes chiseled into the skulls of humans from the same era, they found the bones bore some striking similarities. They didn't show any signs of fracturing from blunt force trauma; rather, the hole in the cow skull, like those in the human skulls, seemed to have been carved out carefully using a tool made for exactly that purpose. That suggests that the hole is evidence of the earliest known veterinary surgery performed by humans.

Trepanation, or the practice of boring holes into human skulls, is one of the oldest forms of surgery. Experts are still unsure why ancient humans did this, but the level of care that went into the procedures suggests that the surgery was likely used to treat sick patients while they were still alive. Why a person would perform this same surgery on a cow, however, is harder to explain.

The authors present a few theories, the first being that these ancient brain surgeons were treating a sick cow the same way they might treat a sick human. If a cow was suffering from a neural disease like epilepsy, perhaps they though that cutting a hole in its head would relieve whatever was agitating the brain. The cow would have needed to be pretty special to warrant such an effort when there were hundreds of healthy cows living on the same plot of land, as evidenced by the skeletons it was found with.

Another possible explanation was that whoever operated on the cow did so as practice to prepare them for drilling into the heads of live humans one day. "Cranial surgery requires great manual dexterity and a complete knowledge of the anatomy of the brain and vessel distribution," the authors write in the study. "It is possible that the mastery of techniques in cranial surgery shown in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods was acquired through experimentation on animals."

Either way, the bovine patient didn't live to see the results of the procedure: The bone around the hole hadn't healed at all, which suggests the cow either died during surgery or wasn't alive to begin with.

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