13 Furry Facts About Bobcats
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.