BY THE MASKED BIOLOGIST
Special to the Star Journal
Recently I gave a presentation about different habitats and the animals that live there to a group of elementary students. As I was talking about the bobcat, I mentioned that the bobcat hunting season is currently underway. A student raised his hand and asked why people hunt bobcats. My response was basically that hunters pursue and take bobcat for the thrill of the hunt, for the trophy (the fur and skull) and to help achieve management objectives of natural resource management agencies seeking to keep top predators or apex predators in check. This can be a somewhat abstract concept for many people, especially lower grade elementary students, but they seemed comfortable with my answer.
In my college mammalogy class, I was taught that the bobcat was Lynx rufus, but I honestly never realized that here in Wisconsin we have the Lake Superior bobcat, a distinct subspecies named lynx rufus superiorensis (Peterson and Downing). It is best identified by the shape and size of skull segments, otherwise almost indistinguishable from Lynx rufus. Bobcats are sometimes also called wildcats, but apparently in the past they were also sometimes called bay lynx, catamount, lynx cat, and red lynx according to Hartley Jackson’s Mammals of Wisconsin. Bobcats are by far our most common wild feline in Wisconsin, with the possible exception of the feral house cat in many locations. Its closest larger relative, the Canada lynx, is occasionally recorded in the state, as is the largest of our felines, the puma; but neither one of these has been officially documented as living and reproducing in the state.
Bobcats have tufts of hair on the side of the face, like fluffy sideburns, and small but visible black tufts of hair on their ear tips. They have a white spot on the back of their ear which is often highly visible on trail camera photos. Their “bobbed” tail is relatively short, maybe a third of the length of their body, and is another diagnostic feature that makes them quite easy to identify on camera photos. Their pelt is not as spotted as some other subspecies, most of them appearing on the stomach and legs. Their coat appears reddish brown in the spring and summer and more of a silvery gray in the winter. Adults are 30 to 40 inches long, and weigh 15 to 35 pounds. Males are larger and heavier than females.
These bobcats are very solitary creatures; I myself have only seen two in the wild in the last ten years. It is far more common for me to see bobcat tracks, especially in the snow in winter. Their preferred habitat is brushy woodlands and swamps, areas that are usually wild, secluded, and well suited for rabbits and snowshoe hares. In fact, rabbits and hares make up about half of their diet. This might be part of why their populations experience peak and low populations about every ten years, because rabbits do as well. As apex predators, these skilled predators will also take almost any other kind of live prey they can find. They will eat deer, documented in several predator studies as a significant predator of deer fawns. They will also eat skunks, squirrels, porcupines, grouse, rodents, even the occasional house cat.
Because bobcats are so similar to Canada lynx, they are managed as look-a-like species here in Wisconsin. This means every cat has to be registered and tagged with a CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna) tag to ensure that it was legally taken and identified as a bobcat by a natural resource professional or conservation warden. Their populations are closely monitored and regulated. Bobcats are one of the many species we have here in the Northwoods that makes our area special; they may not be regularly seen, but we appreciate knowing they are part of our thriving forested landscape.
The Masked Biologist earned a Bachelor of Science degree from a university with a highly regarded wildlife biology program. His work for natural resource agencies across the country provided opportunities to work with a variety of common and rare fish, plant and wildlife species. Follow The Masked Biologist on Facebook. Email questions to MaskedBiologist@charter.net.