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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Putting a Wild Cat Back in a Changing Habitat

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 5, 2013

Iberian lynx

Iberian lynx

The Iberian lynx made headlines last week, as a likely candidate for extinction because of climate change.  But I missed the key point:  Researchers are already planning to adapt by re-introducing captive-reared lynx only to cooler upland habitat, because that’s where they will need to go to survive in a warmer world.  

Here’s an account sent to Strange Behaviors by Virginia writer William H Funk:

The Iberian lynx is the world’s most imperiled felid, with a total population of around 250 animals still in the wild. It’s a bobcat-sized hunter of rabbits, mice and birds in the dry scrub and maquis thickets of southern Spain.

It remains critically endangered, with poor genetic diversity, and only about five percent of it natural habitat still intact.

But the lynx (Felis pardinus) has recently benefitted from captive breeding efforts.  Beginning in 2009, Spanish scientists have reintroduced 40 of the cats to the province of Andalusia, and one was recently sighting hunting far to the north in Don Quixote’s old stomping grounds of Castile-La Mancha.

These efforts aim to put the lynx on the road to a comeback, staving off the first extinction in the feline family since the saber-toothed cat died out 10,000 years ago.

Saving the lynx has already brought direct benefits to its human neighbors, as wildlife watching has become a tourist attraction in the area. And with unemployment in Andalusia at nearly 37 percent, the program has also created numerous local jobs for habitat restoration.

But poaching, death by automobile, and disease continue to take their toll.

The Iberian lynx is a remarkably handsome animal, weighing about 25 pounds, with thick, drooping muttonchops, long silky ear tufts, and gray speckled fur with yellowish/rusty tinting and chocolate spots. Its long hind legs are perfectly adapted for its leaping attack, and it has big, broad paws for snagging prey.  It fills an important ecological niche, hunting small-to-medium-size vertebrates. But its favorite food is the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), hero of the novel Watership Down.

And therein lies the problem. Climate change is expected to cause Spain’s rabbit population to seek higher, cooler habitat, and it’s doubtful the cats can adapt fast enough on their own to keep up with their favorite prey. Last month a paper in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change predicted that unless climate change is figured into reintroduction efforts, the millions of euros and years of hard work could vanish with the lynx inside of 50 years.

In one of the first broad analyses of climate change and prey availability as integral factors for wildlife management, the researchers argued that the Iberian lynx conservation effort must incorporate the likely effects of global warming to keep the lynx alive into the next century. They propose adapting management plans to reintroduce the species exclusively to Spain’s higher terrain, such as the Pyrenean foothills, where rabbits will likely migrate.  That way, this lovely, fierce little cat will have more time to adapt to its home far above the burning plain.

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