From New World Encyclopedia
Bobcat stare.jpg
Conservation status
Status iucn3.1 LC.svg
Least Concern

(IUCN) (IUCN 2008)

Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Felidae
Genus: Lynx
Species: L. rufus
Binomial name
Lynx rufus
(Schreber, 1777)
Bobcat range
Bobcat range

Felis rufus Schreber

Bobcat is the common name for a medium-sized wild cat of North America, Lynx rufus, characterized by black tuffed ears, short tail, whiskered face, spotted fur, distinctive black bars on its forelegs, and a black-tipped stubby tail with a "bobbed" appearance. It is one of four extant species in the Lynx taxon, which modern taxonomy places at the genus level within the cat family Felidae, but which some authorities have placed within the genus Felis, in which case bobcat is listed as Felis rufus. The bobcat ranges from southern Canada to northern Mexico, including most of the continental United States. The bobcat is similar in appearance to the Canadian lynx (Lynx canadensis), which is found in northern North America.

The bobcat is an adaptable predator that inhabits wooded areas, as well as semi-desert, urban edge, and swampland environments. It persists in much of its original range and populations are healthy.

The bobcat plays an important ecological role in control of its prey populations. Though the bobcat prefers rabbits and hares, it will hunt anything from insects and small rodents to deer. Prey selection depends on location and habitat, season, and abundance. Like most cats, the bobcat is territorial and largely solitary, although there is some overlap in home ranges. It uses several methods to mark its territorial boundaries, including claw marks and deposits of urine or feces. The bobcat breeds from winter into spring and has a gestation period of about two months.

Although the bobcat has been subject to extensive hunting by humans, both for sport and fur, its population has proven resilient. The elusive predator features in Native American mythology, often intertwined with the coyote as representing opposites in a theme of duality. It also played an important role in folklore of European settlers.

Overview and description

The bobcat (Lynx rufus) is placed in the Lynx taxon in the cat family Felidae with the Canadian lynx (Lynx canadensis), Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx), and Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus). All of these are characterized by tufted ears, long legs, short tails, large paws, and short heads.

There had been debate over whether to classify this species as Lynx rufus or Felis rufus as part of a wider issue regarding whether the four extant species of Lynx should be given their own genus, or be placed as a subgenus of Felis (Zielinski et al. 1998; Meaney and Beauvais 2004). Garcia-Perea (1992), ITIS (2006), Wozencraft (2005), Werdelin (1981), and Myers et al. (2008) are authorities who recognize the generic status of Lynx. Others, however, such as McKenna and Bell (1997) and Hemmer (1978), consider Lynx to be a subgenus within Felis. Felis was the original genus into which these wild cats were originally placed. Generally, the Lynx genus is now accepted, and the bobcat is listed as Lynx rufus in modern taxonomic sources.

A bobcat finds water in Tucson.

The bobcat resembles other species of the Lynx genus but is on average the smallest of the four. Its coat is variable, though generally tan to grayish brown, with black streaks on the body and dark bars on the forelegs and tail. Its spotted patterning acts as camouflage. The ears are black-tipped and pointed, with short black tufts. There is generally an off-white color on the lips, chin, and underparts. Bobcats in the desert regions of the southwest have the lightest colored coats, while those in the northern, forested regions are darkest. Kittens are born well-furred and already have their spots (Cahalane 2005). A few melanistic bobcats have been sighted and captured in Florida. They appear black, but may actually still exhibit a spot pattern (Ulmer 1941).

The face appears wide due to ruffs of extended hair beneath the ears. The fur is brittle but quite long and dense. The nose of the bobcat is pinkish-red, and it has a base color of gray or yellowish- or brownish-red on its face, sides, and back. Bobcat eyes are yellow with black pupils (Sparano 1998). The pupils are elongated vertically and will widen during nocturnal activity to maximize light reception (McDowell 2003).

The bobcat is about twice as large as the domestic cat. The adult male bobcat is 28 to 47 inches (70–120 cm) long, averaging 36 inches (90 cm); this includes a stubby 4 to 7 inch (10–18 cm) tail (Sparano 1998), which has a "bobbed" appearance and gives the species its name. An adult stands about 14 or 15 inches (36–38 cm) at the shoulders (Cahalane 2005). Adult males usually range from 16 to 30 pounds (7–14 kg); females average about 20 pounds (9 kg). At birth, a bobcat weighs about 0.6 to 0.75 pounds (280–340 g) and is about 10 inches (25 cm) in length. By its first year, it will reach about 10 pounds (4.5 kg) (Fergus 2003).

The cat is larger in its northern range and in open habitats (Nowell and Jackson 1996). A morphological size comparison study in the eastern United States found a divergence in the location of the largest male and female specimens, suggesting differing selection constraints for the sexes (Sikes and Kennedy 1992).

The bobcat is muscular, and its hind legs are longer than its front legs, giving it a bobbing gait. The cat has sharp hearing and vision, and a good sense of smell. It is an excellent climber, and will swim when it needs to, but will normally avoid water (Fergus 2003).

Both the Canadian lynx (Lynx canadensis) and the bobcat are found in North America, and are both in about the same size range, but they differ in body proportions and markings. The bobcat has shorter legs, smaller paws, shorter ear tufts, and more spotted coat (pelage), with only the top of the tip of the tail black, versus the black-tipped tail of the Canadian lynx (FWS 2000). The paws of the bobcat have one half of the surface area of the Canadian lynx. The Canadian lynx (also known as the Canada lynx and North American lynx) has hind legs that are longer than the front legs (FWS 2000), as with the bobcat.


Bobcat tracks in mud. Note the hind print (top) partially covering the fore print (center).

Bobcat tracks show four toes without claw marks, due to their retractable claws. The tracks can range in size from 1 to 3 inches (2–8 cm); the average is about 1.8 inches. When walking or trotting, the tracks are spaced roughly 8 to 18 inches (20–46 cm) apart. The bobcat can make great strides when running, often from 4 to 8 feet (1–3 meters) (Peterson and Murie 1998).

Like all cats, the bobcat "directly registers," meaning its hind prints usually fall exactly on top of its fore prints. Bobcat tracks can be generally distinguished from feral or house cat tracks by their larger size: approximately 2 square inches (13 cm²) versus 1½ square inches (10 cm²) (Brown 1986).

Distribution and habitat

A bobcat in urban surroundings. The species' range does not seem to be limited by human populations, as long as it can still find a suitable habitat

The historical range of the bobcat was from southern Canada, throughout the United States, and as far south as the Mexican state of Oaxaca, and it still persists across much of this area. Range maps typically show a pocket of territory in the U.S. Midwest and parts of the Northeast where it is no longer thought to exist, including southern Minnesota, eastern South Dakota, Iowa, and much of Missouri, mostly due to habitat changes from modern agricultural practices (Nowell and Jackson 1996; McDowell 2003; Whitaker and Hamilton 1998). Multiple confirmed sightings of bobcats have been reported in New York's Southern Tier and in central New York (Tobin 2007). Bobcats are well established in northcentral and northeastern counties in Pennsylvania and have been continually expanding their range (PGC 2006). The Canadian lynx is no longer found in Pennsylvania (PGC 2006).

The bobcat is an exceptionally adaptable animal. It prefers woodlands—deciduous, coniferous, or mixed—but unlike the other Lynx species it does not depend exclusively on the deep forest. It ranges from the humid swamps of Florida to rugged mountain areas. It will make its home near agricultural areas, if rocky ledges, swamps, or forested tracts are present; its spotted coat serving as camouflage (Whitaker and Hamilton 1998). The population of the bobcat depends primarily on the population of its prey; other principal factors in the selection of habitat type include protection from severe weather, availability of resting and den sites, dense cover for hunting and escape, and freedom from disturbance (CITES 2004).

The bobcat's range does not seem to be limited by human populations, as long as it can still find a suitable habitat; only large, intensively cultivated tracts are unsuitable for the species (Nowell and Jackson 1996. The animal may appear in backyards in "urban edge" environments, where human development intersects with natural habitats (NPS 2007). If chased by a dog it will usually climb up a tree (Whitaker and Hamilton 1998).

The bobcat's population in Canada is limited due to both snow depth and the presence of the Canadian lynx. The Bobcat does not tolerate deep snow, and will wait out heavy storms in sheltered areas; it lacks the large, padded feet of the Canadian lynx and cannot support its weight on snow as efficiently. The bobcat is not entirely at a disadvantage where its range meets that of the larger felid: displacement of the Canadian lynx by the aggressive bobcat has been observed where they interact in Nova Scotia, while the clearing of coniferous forests for agriculture has led to a northward retreat of the Canadian lynx's range to the advantage of the bobcat (Nowell and Jackson 1996). In northern and central Mexico, the cat is found in dry scrubland and forests of pine and oak; its range ends at the tropical southern portion of the country (Nowell and Jackson 1996).


The bobcat is crepuscular (generally most active at twilight and dawn). It keeps on the move from three hours before sunset until about midnight, and then again from before dawn until three hours after sunrise. Each night it will move from 2 to 7 miles (3–11 km) along its habitual route (Fergus 2003). This behavior may vary seasonally, as bobcats become more diurnal during fall and winter. This is a response to the activity of their prey, which are more active during the day in colder months (McDowell 2003).

Social structure and home range

A bobcat on the Calero Creek Trail, in San Jose, California.

Bobcat activities are confined to well-defined territories, which vary in size depending on sex and the distribution of prey. The home range is marked with feces, urine scent, and by clawing prominent trees in the area. In its territory, the bobcat will have numerous places of shelter: usually a main den, and several auxiliary shelters on the outer extent of its range, such as hollow logs, brush piles, thickets, or under rock ledges. Its den smells strongly of the bobcat (Whitaker and Hamilton 1998).

The sizes of bobcat home ranges vary significantly; a World Conservation Union (IUCN) summary of research suggests ranges anywhere from 0.02 to 126 square miles (0.6 to 326 km²) (Nowell and Jackson 1996). One study in Kansas found resident males to have roughly an 8 sq mi (20 km²) range and females less than half that area. Transient bobcats were found to have both a larger (roughly 22 square miles) and less well-defined home range. Kittens had the smallest range at about 3 sq mi (7 km²) (Kamler and Gipson 2000). Research has shown that dispersal from the natal range is most pronounced with males (Janečka et al. 2006).

Reports on seasonal variation in range size have been equivocal. One study found a large variation in male range sizes, from 16 sq mi (41 km²) in summer up to 40 sq mi (100 km²) in winter (Whitaker and Hamilton 1998). Another found that female bobcats, especially those which were reproductively active, expanded their home range in winter, but that males merely shifted their range without expanding it, which was consistent with numerous earlier studies (Lovallo and Anderson 1996). Other research in various U.S. states has shown little or no seasonal variation (Kamler and Gipson 2000; Nielsen and Woolf 2001; Chamberlain et al. 2003)

Like most felines, the bobcat is largely solitary but ranges will often overlap. Unusually for a cat, males are more tolerant of overlap, while females rarely wander into others' ranges (Lovallo and Anderson 1996). Given their smaller range sizes, two or more females may reside within a male's home range. When multiple male territories overlap, a dominance hierarchy is often established resulting in the exclusion of some transients from favored areas.

In line with widely differing estimates of home range size, population density figures are divergent: anywhere from 1 to 38 Bobcats per 25 sq mi (65 km²) in one survey (Nowell and Jackson 1996). The average is estimated at one bobcat per every 5 sq mi (13 km²) or slightly less (Whitaker and Hamilton 1998). A link has been observed between population density and sex ratio. One study noted that a dense population in California had a sex ratio of 2.1 males per female. When the density decreased, the sex ratio skewed to 0.86 males per female. Another study observed a similar ratio, and suggested that males may be better able to cope with the increased competition, and that this would help limit reproduction until various factors lowered the density (Feldhamer et al. 2004).

Hunting and diet

The snowshoe hare is a principal prey species of the bobcat. Rabbits and hares, along with rodents, are taken most often by the cat.

The bobcat is an opportunistic predator that, unlike the more specialized Canadian lynx, will readily vary its prey selection (Nowell and Jackson 1996). Research has shown that diet diversification positively correlates to a decline in numbers of the bobcat's principal prey; the abundance of its main prey species is thus the main determinant of overall diet (Baker et al. 2001).

The bobcat's preference is for mammals about 1.5 to 12.5 pounds (0.7 to 5.7 kg). Its main prey varies by region. In the eastern United States it is cottontail rabbit species, and in the north it is the snowshoe hare. When these prey species exist together, as in New England, they are the primary food sources of the bobcat. In the far south, the rabbits and hares are sometimes replaced by cotton rats as the primary food source.

Less commonly, the bobcat will feed on larger animals such as foxes, minks, skunks, small dogs, and house cats (Whitaker and Hamilton 1998).

During lean periods, the bobcat will often prey on larger animals that it can kill and return to feed on later. It has been known to kill deer, especially in winter when smaller prey is scarce, or when deer populations become more abundant. One study in the Everglades showed a large majority of kills (33 of 39) were fawns, but that prey up to eight times the bobcat's weight could be successfully taken (Labisky and Boulay 1998). On the rare occasions that a bobcat kills a deer, it eats its fill and then buries the carcass under snow or leaves, often returning to it several times to feed (Whitaker and Hamilton 1998).

Bobcats are also occasional hunters of livestock and poultry. While larger species such as cattle and horses are not known to be attacked, bobcats do present a threat to smaller ruminants such as sheep and goats. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, bobcats killed 11,100 sheep in 2004 in the United States, comprising 4.9 percent of all sheep predator deaths (NASS 2005). However, some amount of bobcat predation may be misidentified, as bobcats have been known to scavenge on the remains of livestock kills by other animals (Neale et al. 1998).

The bobcat is able to go for long periods without food, but will eat heavily when prey is abundant.

The bobcat basically hunts by stalking its prey and then ambushing it with a short chase or pounce. Since the bobcat hunts animals of different sizes, it will adjust its hunting techniques accordingly. With small animals, such as rodents, squirrels, birds, fish, and insects, it will hunt in areas known to be abundant in prey, and will lie, crouch, or stand and wait for victims to wander close. It will then pounce, grabbing its prey with its sharp, retractable claws. For slightly larger animals, such as rabbits and hares, it will stalk from cover and wait until they come within 20 to 35 feet (6 to 10 m) before rushing in to attack. For deer, it stalks the animal, often when the deer is lying down, then rushes in and grabs it by the neck before biting through the throat, base of the skull, or chest.

The bobcat prey base overlaps with that of other mid-sized predators of a similar ecological niche. Research in Maine has shown little evidence of competitive relationships between the bobcat and coyote or red fox; separation distances and territory overlap appeared random among simultaneously monitored animals (Major and Sherburne 1987). With the Canadian lynx, however, the interspecific relationship affects distribution patterns: competitive exclusion by the bobcat is likely to have prevented any further southward expansion of the range of its felid cousin (Meaney and Beauvais 2004).

Reproduction and life cycle

Bobcats typically live to six or eight years of age, with a few reaching beyond ten. The longest they have been known to live is 16 years in the wild and 32 years in captivity (Feldhamer et al. 2004).

They generally begin breeding by their second summer, though females may start as early as their first year. Sperm production begins each year by September or October, and the male will be fertile into the summer. A dominant male will travel with a female and mate with her several times, generally from winter until early spring; this varies by location, but most mating takes place during February and March. The pair may undertake a number of different behaviors, including bumping, chasing, and ambushing. Other males may be in attendance, but remain uninvolved. Once the male recognizes that the female is receptive, he grasps her in the typical felid neck grip and mates. The female may later go on to mate with other males (Whitaker and Hamilton 1998), and males will generally mate with several females (Fischer et al. 1996). During courtship, the otherwise silent bobcat may let out loud screams, hisses, or other sounds (Nowak 1999). Research in Texas has suggested that establishing a home range is necessary for breeding; studied animals with no set range had no identified offspring (Janečka et al. 2006). The female has an estrous cycle of 44 days, with the estrus lasting five to ten days. Bobcats remain reproductively active throughout their lives (Fischer et al. 1996; McDowell 2003).

The female raises the young alone. One to six, but usually two to four, kittens are born in April or May, after roughly 60 to 70 days of gestation. There may sometimes be a second litter, with births as late as September. The female generally gives birth in some sort of enclosed space, usually a small cave or hollow log. The young open their eyes by the ninth or tenth day. They start exploring their surroundings at four weeks and are weaned at about two months. Within three to five months they begin to travel with their mother (Nowak 1999). They will be hunting by themselves by fall of their first year and usually disperse shortly thereafter (Whitaker and Hamilton 1998). In Michigan, however, they have been observed staying with their mother as late as the next spring (Fischer et al. 1996).


Skull of a bobcat

The adult bobcat has few predators other than man, although it may be killed in interspecific conflict. Cougars and gray wolves will kill adult bobcats, a behavior repeatedly observed in Yellowstone National Park (Akenson et al. 2007). Kittens may be taken by several predators including owls, eagles, coyotes, foxes, as well as other adult male bobcats; when prey populations are not abundant, fewer kittens are likely to reach adulthood.

Diseases, accidents, hunters, automobiles, and starvation are the other leading causes of death. Juveniles show high mortality shortly after leaving their mothers, while still perfecting their hunting technique. One study of 15 bobcats showed yearly survival rates for both sexes averaged 0.62 (62 percent), in line with other research suggesting rates of 0.56 to 0.67 (Fuller et al. 2995). There have also been reports of cannibalism occurring when prey levels are low, but it is very rare and does not significantly influence the population (Feldhamer et al. 2004).

The bobcat may harbor external parasites, mostly ticks and fleas, and will often carry the parasites of its prey, especially those of rabbits and squirrels. Internal parasites (endoparasites) are especially common in bobcats. One study found an average infection rate of 52 percent from Toxoplasma gondii, but with great regional variation (Kikuchi et al. 2004). One mite in particular, Lynxacarus morlani, has to date only been found on the bobcat. It is still unclear how large a role parasites and diseases play in the mortality of the bobcat, but they may account for greater mortality than starvation, accidents, and predation (Feldhamer et al. 2004).


Johnson et al. (2006) report that the genus Lynx shared a clade with the puma, leopard cat (Prionailurus), and domestic cat (Felis) lineages, dated to 7.15 million years ago (mya); Lynx diverged first, approximately 3.24 mya.

The bobcat is believed to have evolved from the Eurasian lynx, which crossed into North America by way of the Bering land bridge during the Pleistocene, with progenitors arriving as early as 2.6 mya (Meaney and Beauvais 2004). The first wave moved into the southern portion of North America, which was soon cut off from the north by glaciers. This population evolved into modern bobcats around 20,000 years ago. A second population arrived from Asia and settled in the north, developing into the modern Canadian lynx (Zielinski and Kuceradate 1998). Hybridization between the bobcat and the Canadian lynx may sometimes occur (Mills 2006).


Twelve current bobcat subspecies have been recognized:

  • L. rufus rufus (Schreber) – eastern and midwestern United States
  • L. rufus gigas (Bangs) – northern New York to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick
  • L. rufus floridanus (Rafinesque) – southeastern United States and inland to the Mississippi valley, up to southwestern Missouri and southern Illinois
  • L. rufus superiorensis (Peterson & Downing) – western Great Lakes area, including upper Michigan, Wisconsin, southern Ontario, and most of Minnesota
  • L. rufus baileyi (Merriam) – southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico
  • L. rufus californicus (Mearns) – California west of the Sierra Nevada
  • L. rufus escuinipae (J. A. Allen) – central Mexico, with a northern extension along the west coast to southern Sonora
  • L. rufus fasciatus (Rafinesque) – Oregon, Washington west of the Cascade Range, northwestern California, and southwestern British Columbia
  • L. rufus oaxacensis (Goodwin) – Oaxaca
  • L. rufus pallescens (Merriam) – northwestern United States and southern British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan
  • L. rufus peninsularis (Thomas) – Baja California
  • L. rufus texensis (Mearns) – western Louisiana, Texas, south central Oklahoma, and south into Tamaulipas, Nuevo León, and Coahuila (Wilson and Ruff 1999; Wozencraft 2005).

The subspecies division has been challenged, given a lack of clear geographic breaks in the bobcat range and the minor differences between subspecies (CITES 2004).


The bobcat population has seen declines in the American Midwest, but is generally stable and healthy

The bobcat is listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES 2008), which means it is not considered threatened with extinction, but that hunting and trading must be closely monitored. The animal is regulated in all three of its range countries and it is found in a number of protected areas of the United States, its principal territory (Nowell and Jackson 1996). Estimates from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service placed bobcat numbers between 700,000 and 1,500,000 in the U.S. in 1988, with increased range and population density suggesting even greater numbers in subsequent years. For these reasons, the U.S. has petitioned CITES to remove the cat from Appendix II (CITES 2004). Populations in Canada and Mexico remain stable and healthy. The IUCN lists it as a species of "least concern," noting that it is relatively widespread and abundant, but that information from southern Mexico is poor (Kelly et al. 2008).

Today, the species is considered endangered in Ohio, Indiana, and New Jersey. It was removed from the threatened list of Illinois in 1999 and of Iowa in 2003. In Pennsylvania, limited hunting and trapping is once again allowed, after having been banned from 1970 to 1999. The bobcat also suffered population declines in New Jersey at the turn of the nineteenth century, mainly because of commercial and agricultural developments causing habitat fragmentation; by 1972, the bobcat was given full legal protection, and was listed as endangered in the state in 1991 (McDowell 2003). L. rufus escuinipae, the subspecies found in Mexico, was for a time considered endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but was delisted in 2005 (FWS 2005).

The bobcat has long been valued both for fur and sport; it has been hunted and trapped by humans, but has maintained a high population, even in the southern United States where it is extensively hunted. Indirectly, kittens are most vulnerable to hunting given their dependence on an adult female for the first few months of life. The 1970s and 1980s saw an unprecedented rise in price for bobcat fur causing further interest in hunting, but by the early 1990s prices had dropped significantly (Grenfell 1996). Regulated hunting still continues, with half of mortality of some populations being attributed to this cause. As a result, the rate of bobcat deaths is skewed in winter, when hunting season is generally open (Feldhamer et al. 2004).

In mythology

In Native American mythology the bobcat is often twinned with the figure of the coyote in a theme of duality. "Lynx" is used generically in mythological descriptions, but necessarily implies the bobcat throughout much of the United States. The lynx and coyote are associated with the wind and fog, respectively—two elements representing opposites in Amerindian folklore. This basic story, in many variations, is found in the native cultures of North America (with parallels in South America), but they diverge in the telling. One version, which appears in the Nez Perce folklore for instance, represents the lynx and the coyote as opposed, antithetical beings (Pollock 1993). However, another version represents them with equality and identicality. Claude Lévi-Strauss argues that the former concept, that of twins representing opposites, is an inherent theme in New World mythologies, but that they are not equally balanced figures, representing an open-ended dualism rather than the symmetric duality of Old World cultures. The latter notion then, Lévi-Strauss suggests, is the result of regular contact between Europeans and native cultures. Additionally, the version found in the Nez Perce story is of much greater complexity, while the version of equality seems to have lost the tale's original meaning (Yalman 1996).

In a Shawnee tale, the bobcat is outwitted by a rabbit, which gives rise to its spots. After trapping the rabbit in a tree, the bobcat is persuaded to build a fire, only to have the embers scattered on its fur, leaving it singed with dark brown spots (Jaxzoo 2005). Mohave believed dreaming habitually of beings or objects would afford them their characteristics as supernatural powers. Dreaming of two deities, the cougar and lynx, they thought, would grant them the superior hunting skills of other tribes (Kroeber 1908). European settlers to the Americas also admired the cat, both for its ferocity and grace, and in the United States it "rests prominently in the anthology of…national folklore" (Temple 1996).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

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