The Iberian lynx, also known as the Spanish lynx, is the most endangered wild cat species in the world and the only cat to be included in the critically endangered category set out by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). There are two types of lynx in Europe: the Iberian lynx and the Eurasian lynx.
Iberian lynx are about half the size of Eurasian lynx, with females weighing about 20 pounds (9 kilograms) and males 29 pounds (13 kilograms). Their body length is between 30 and 40 inches (75 and 100 centimeters) and shoulder height is 18 to 28 inches (45 to 70 centimeters).
Iberian lynx are spotted and deep yellow or brown, with short tails and black tufts of fur at the tops of their ears. They are nocturnal (active during the night). In winter, their fur grows thicker and they remain active, taking shelter in caves or trees when the weather is severe.
With a keen sense of vision and smell, the Iberian lynx is a good hunter. Its diet consists mainly of rabbits, but may also include small or baby deer, small mammals, and ducks. When the lynx kills its prey, it drags it away to eat elsewhere, burying anything that is left over for the next day.
Lynx are solitary animals. Each Iberian lynx, male and female, has its own home range, an area it knows thoroughly and patrols on a regular basis but does not necessarily defend.
Within its home range, the lynx lives within a territory, which may range in size from 2.5 to 6 miles (4 to 9.5 kilometers) in diameter, which it does defend from other lynx. Female lynx generally only have one mate per season; males may have more than one.
Females give birth to two or three offspring at a time. The mother stays with her young until she mates again the next year. The offspring will then remain within the mother’s territory for about another year before going off to establish their own territory. Iberian lynx have a life span of about 13 years.
Habitat and current distribution
Iberian lynx live in woodlands or other areas of dense vegetation near open pastures where they can hunt for rabbits. An extreme reduction in rabbits and the intrusion of human settlement in the twentieth century have drastically reduced the population, which now lives in a few isolated areas in Spain and Portugal, in the southern part of the Iberian peninsula.
In 2002, wildlife biologists (people who study living organisms) estimated that there were less than 300 Iberian lynx left. If the Iberian lynx becomes extinct, it will be the first wild cat species to be lost in thousands of years.
History and conservation measures
In the early 1950s, myxomatosis, a contagious disease, killed a very large proportion of Spain’s rabbit population. The loss of the main food in its diet reduced the Iberian lynx population further.
Iberian lynx had long prospered in the habitat provided by cork oak forests, but in the 1990s cork became less marketable and many of these forests were cut down. Humans built vacation homes and roads in previously remote lynx territories, further destroying their habitat.
Humans have also illegally hunted lynx and accidentally maimed them in snares meant for other animals. Lynx have been hit by cars on the new roadways. But the loss of the rabbit population has been the biggest factor threatening the species.
Restoration of the rabbits in the effected areas of Spain and Portugal is the first step in the attempt to save the Iberian lynx from extinction. Preserving the natural habitat, such as the cork oak forests, is equally important. Because much of the lynx’s natural habitat is privately owned, it is necessary for private landowners to become involved in conservation efforts.
With so few Iberian lynx left, efforts have been made to protect the two known remaining populations. A captive breeding program has been initiated, but in 2002 it had not yet produced any offspring. Little is known about breeding lynx in captivity.