Was that a bobcat or a lynx?

bobcat_06Local big cat sightings is the topic of discussion this week 

By Irene Shonle

Have you spotted a large cat while looking out your window or driving down the road? It’s always a thrilling sight, and one of the blessings of living up here. Then the question of ID comes up. Was it a mountain lion, bobcat, or lynx? It’s fairly easy to separate a mountain lion from the other two based on size (mountain lions have a long body — 5-6’– and have a very long rope-like tail). There are also no ear tufts or facial ruffs or spots on the mountain lion.

But distinguishing between a bobcat and a lynx is tricky. They both have short tails, and they both have tufted ears (bobcats vary on tuft length) and facial ruffs, and they aren’t that different in size (2.5 – 4’ long), so none of these characteristics is definitive. They are also closely related animals – both are members of the genus Lynx (the scientific name for lynx is Lynx canadensis and bobcats are Lynx rufus).

Bobcats are far more common (in the tens of thousands in CO) than lynx (200 or less), so based on population alone, a short-tailed cat with tufted ears should always be presumed a bobcat unless proven otherwise.

Lynx are so rare that they were considered extinct in Colorado in the 1970’s. They were wiped out due to a variety of factors, including unregulated use of poisons, habitat destruction, and unregulated hunting. In 1999, The Colorado Division of Wildlife began reintroducing lynx from British Columbia and the Yukon to the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado. By 2006, more than 200 Canadian lynx had been reintroduced. While many didn’t survive, there are known reproductive pairs, and evidence of kittens being born in the wild. In 2010, as birthrates exceeded the wild cats’ mortality rates, Colorado wildlife officials declared the state-based restoration effort a success. Since then, Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists have not done any population counts, but last estimated in 2010 that more than 200 lynx now live in Colorado.

But that’s only 200 across the whole state, folks, and there have been no biologist-confirmed sightings in Gilpin County, despite many popular claims to have seen one. Lynx are also usually found at even higher elevations than where most people live around here, since their primary diet is snowshoe hare, and we tend to specialize in the mountain cottontail (winter recognition tip: if you see a brown bunny in the winter, it’s a cottontail – snowshoe hares turn white).

However, it’s within the realm of possibility that we would have a lynx, and would be great to know there’s one out there.

Here is a short list of features to distinguish between the two:

The most reliable characteristic is the tail – the tip of a bobcat’s tail is white underneath with a black spot on top. The tip of a lynx tail is all black, like it has been dipped in ink. Bobcats often curl their tails, giving an obliging view of the underside white.

Next, look at the feet – lynx feet are very large, looking out of proportion to the rest of its body. They are also furry – this is to act as snowshoes as they hunt for hares. Tracks of bobcats are usually about 2.5-3” and lynx tracks are 3-5” – but snow conditions can make measurements inaccurate at times, so don’t rely too heavily on this. Lynx toe pads are often obscured due to their fur. Claw marks are never visible on either; if you see claw marks, it’s a coyote, fox, or dog.

Lynx are grayish brown in winter and more reddish in summer. They lack distinct spots and striping. Bobcats typically have spotting on their coats and distinct striping on their front legs and faces.

So, after all of that, if you still think you’ve seen a lynx, you can report it to the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife at Ignore the part about the collars – most lynx now were either born in the wild with no collars, or have lost their collar if they are still alive.

Irene Shonle is the Director of the CSU Extension in Gilpin County. The CSU Gilpin County Extension Office is located at the Exhibit Barn, 230 Norton Drive, Black Hawk, CO 80422, 303-582-9106, Colorado State University Extension provides unbiased, research-based information about, horticulture, natural resources, and 4-H youth development. Colorado State University Extension is dedicated to serving all people on an equal and nondiscriminatory basis.

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