Skip to content

Skip to table of contents

A Rare Encounter With a Stealthy Hunter

A Rare Encounter With a Stealthy Hunter

 A Rare Encounter With a Stealthy Hunter


“LOOK! Over there in the meadow,” I whispered excitedly. My wife and I were canoeing along the majestic Nechako River in central British Columbia, enjoying the sights and sounds of the pristine wilderness. Suddenly, a creature bolted out of nowhere to pounce on an unwary hare. With split-second speed, the prey darted for safety. Sensing our presence, the predator froze momentarily in its tracks. It eyed us with a cold stare and growled as if to say, ‘Thank you for spoiling my breakfast.’ Then it vanished silently into the darkness of the bushes. “What was it?” my wife asked. “A lynx,” I replied. Right then another spine-chilling growl echoed through the crisp morning air, this time longer and louder.

A Rare Sight

This was indeed a rare encounter. The lynx once roamed the forests and mountains of the entire Northern Hemisphere, but today it is found only in isolated regions of the world. Sightings have been confirmed in remote mountainous areas of Eurasia and as far south as the mountains of Spain. The greatest number, though, are found in Siberia and in the dense, unbroken forests of northern Canada and Alaska. A reference book on wild cats says: “Lynx need two kinds of forest habitat to live comfortably: dense patches of gnarly, tangled mature forest for shelter and birth-dens, and lush, juicy meadows and young woods where they can hunt for hares.”

Some mature lynx are about six times the size of a large house cat and stand about thigh-high to an adult human. A North American male can weigh between 25 and  35 pounds [10-15 kg], and a female between 15 and 20 pounds [5-10 kg]. They are about half the size of their European cousin. Some of these wild cats can grow to 40 inches [100 cm] in length.

Among its distinctive features is exaggerated cheek fur that makes the lynx noticeably different from most feline species. Its face, which is broader and shorter than those of most cats, deceptively gives it the appearance of being shy and almost gentle. In winter the North American lynx grows a dense coat of soft fur about four inches [10 cm] long, and it is usually light gray with darker-gray markings on its face. The Eurasian lynx may have light-brown coloring with dark-brown markings. The lynx also has a distinguishing stumpy black-tipped tail, which is about four inches [10 cm] long. You will notice large triangular-shaped ears that are tipped with tufts of black hair. These act like antennae, as they help localize the sounds made by small prey.

Precision and secrecy enable this generally solitary hunter to capture its prey. Because of its large snowshoelike padded paws with retractable claws, it can readily run through snowdrifts. Extremely long, powerful  hind legs allow the lynx to accelerate instantly and propel itself six to ten feet [2-3 m] in a single leap. It can also twist acrobatically in the air to change direction during a pursuit. Any chase, however, is usually of short duration. The lynx will retreat if it does not overtake its prey after about five bounds. In fact, it will often have to chase between three and ten hares before catching one. So a lost chance means an empty stomach. When it does overtake its prey, a lynx will use its powerful short jaw​—equipped with 28 teeth, 4 of which are fangs that act like daggers—​to stab the neck of its victim.

Hunting is primarily done just before dawn and just after dusk. As with most other cats, the lynx can see in the dim light. In fact, to see at night, it needs only one sixth as much light as humans do. Feline eyes have a special membrane behind each retina, which acts like a mirror, bouncing light back through the retina for maximum stimulation. This causes the eyes to appear to glow like glass marbles in the dark when they look directly at you. A book about wild cats of the world says: “Lynx rely on their vision to spot prey from great distances. Supposedly, they can see a mouse from 250 feet [75 m] away, and a snowshoe hare at 1,000 feet [300 m]​—farther than the length of three football fields.”

The food of choice for the lynx in Canada is the snowshoe hare, and it will kill an average of two of them every three days. A well-fed lynx may live up to 15 years. An opportunistic hunter, it will also eat mice, voles, grouse, ducks, beavers, and squirrels. Reports have documented that some lynx have even killed deer, earning them the reputation of being fierce and aggressive hunters.

Understanding and Preserving the Lynx

When a female lynx is ready to breed, she will signal this by her scent markings and caterwauling. After mating, she will produce a litter of about four kittens and, on rare occasions, up to seven when the food supply is plentiful. Interestingly, when food is scarce, litters are smaller.

Elusive by nature, the lynx will avoid areas where there has been human activity. Conservation efforts have helped it to thrive in many areas of British Columbia. Also, modern selective logging techniques may aid it because the small openings left in the forest create a meadow where hares can feed. As the hare population increases, so does the lynx population.

This intriguing creature is an important part of a complex ecosystem. Like other predators, it is dependent on its prey. As a nature book summed it up, ‘it is also dependent on the grass and twigs that its prey eats. Likewise, it is dependent on the organisms in the forest soil that feed the plants that feed the prey.’ Indeed, the complexity of nature teaches us the importance of living in harmony with and preserving our environment for creatures like the lynx.