Here at TwilightBeasts we like to focus on the Pleistocene. That magic time when everything was bigger, badder, and weirder than now. But it’s a simple fact that every species now extant must have had an ancestor during the Pleistocene. That fact is true for us, and its true for lynx. The four species of the Lynx genus are an interesting bunch. Smallest, and the basal member of the group, is the north American bobcat (Lynx rufus), a medium-sized felid slightly bigger than a housecat and renowned for its ferocity. Although this doesn’t seem to have stopped them being kept as pets by some native americans. Not available on eBay.
Next in the group is the Canadian lynx (Lynx canadensis), famous for its supposed dependence on the snowshoe hare, and cyclical population growth. It’s also turned up in some weird places.
In Europe we are blessed with two distinct species, the largest of the quartet: the wide-ranging Northern lynx (Lynx lynx) and the Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus).
Thanks to human persecution, myxomatosis, and land-use changes the only felid species endemic to Europe is also the most critically endangered of the entire family. Iberian lynx currently number only about 300 individuals spread between conservation centres, one national park (coto doñana), and perhaps a few other isolated spots. Many lynx are still killed each year on the roads that hem them into the park. On the other hand the Northern lynx is doing very well, with contiguous populations found all over Northern Europe and Northern Asia as far East as Siberia. In fact there have been considerable successes around the reintroduction of Northern lynx into their former territories in the Alps, Dinarics, and some other spots. There has also been recent talk of reintroducing the Northern lynx into Britain after new work showed that it could be found in Yorkshire up until medieval times.
Apart from some small buffer zones (and some confirmed hybrids) between the ranges of the bobcat and Canadian lynx, the current distribution of the four members of the genus is generally non-overlapping. This kind of distribution practically screams out “allopatric speciation”! And indeed this appears to be the case from the genetic and fossil evidence we have.
Somewhat surprisingly some of the first lynx fossils are known from northern Africa- the one place where there are currently no lynx species. (Unless you count the desert lynx, another name for the Caracal, Caracal caracal, which although it has some natty ear tufts, is not closely related to the true lynx at all.) These Pliocene remains belong to the sensuously named Issoire lynx (Lynx issiodorensis). A cosmopolitan species known from many fossil sites all over the old world, it is almost certainly the direct ancestor of all four modern Lynx species. American lynx are therefore the result of two invasions; one earlier (Pliocene) that gave rise to the bobcat, and one later (Pleistocene) that gave rise to the Canadian lynx. [EDIT All-round carnivore expert and lynx specialist Lars Werdelin, kindly popped in to the comments to tell us that the earliest lynx fossils are actually North American, but undescribed as of yet]
The relationship between the Iberian lynx and Northern lynx is slightly more complex. The Iberian peninsula is well known as a mammalian refugium. A stable temperate outpost when most of the Northern hemisphere is freezing during glacial conditions. Acting as a “safe-house” for some mammals during the glacial advance, a combination of selective forces and genetic drift likely steered the ancestors of the Iberian lynx along their distinctive trajectory. We even have fossils of some of the intermediate forms between Issoire and Iberian. The cave lynx (Lynx [pardinus] spelaeus) is known from sites in Spain, France, and Italy. Larger than the modern Iberian lynx, it shows the classic trend of decreasing size through time that we also see in lions, jaguars, puma, and other cats.But what are these fossils doing in France and Italy? Isn’t the Iberian lynx, well, an Iberian lynx? Yes and no. Like all good species, the Iberian lynx has been able to leave its native home when conditions were favourable, and colonise new territory. We’ve found fossils of Iberian lynx and Northern lynx together at a Pleistocene site in Italy (Arene Candide), showing that these are species that remain distinct even when their ranges are occasionally sympatric. It’s really just an accident of climate that Iberian lynx are only found in Spain (and latterly Portugal) today.
Northern lynx are supremely adaptable cats. The breadth of their range from Sweden to Siberia shows this to be the case. These are large animals, easily the size of a Labrador, and able to take down Roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) with ease (they sometimes also take Red deer, Cervus elaphus). It used to be thought that Northern lynx stayed, well, Northern, and never made it past the Pyrenees. A new paper by Rodríguez-Varela et al. overturns this notion and shows that L. lynx could be found in Northern Spain up until the 16th century. So, you have Northern lynx in Iberia, Iberian lynx in Northern Italy. Sometimes names are just there to confuse you!
Written by Ross Barnett (@deepfriedDNA)
Allopatric speciation; relating to the distribution of species where they are non-overlapping in range and derive from one wide-ranging ancestor that encountered semi-permeable barriers to geneflow.
Sympatric; relating to the distribution of species where they are overlapping in range.
Blake, M., D. Naish, G. Larson, C. L. King, G. Nowell, M. Sakomoto, and R. Barnett. “Multidisciplinary Investigation of a ‘British Big Cat’: A Lynx Killed in Southern England C.1903.” Historical Biology 26, no. 4 (2014): 441-48. [Full Text]
Ghezzo, E., A. Boscaini, J. Madurell-Malapeira, and L. Rook. “Lynx Remains from the Pleistocene of Valdemino Cave (Savona, Northwestern Italy), and the Oldest Occurrence of Lynx Spelaeus (Carnivora, Felidae).” Rend. Fis. Acc. Lincei 26 (2014): 87-95.[Full Text]
Hetherington, D. A., T. C. Lord, and R. M. Jacobi. “New Evidence for the Occurence of Eurasian Lynx (Lynx Lynx) in Medieval Britain.” Journal of Quaternary Science (2005).[Abstract]
Kurten, B. “Lynx from Etouaires, Lynx Issiodorensis (Croizet and Jobert), Late Pliocene.” [In English]. Annales Zoologici Fennici 15, no. 4 (1978): 314-22.[Full Text]
Lariviere, S., and L. R. Walton. “Lynx rufus.” Mammalian Species 563 (1997): 1-8.[Full Text]
Rodriguez-Varela, R., N. Garcia, C. Nores, D. Alvarez-Lao, R. Barnett, J. L. Arsuaga, and C. Valdiosera. “Ancient DNA Reveals the Past Existence of Eurasian Lynx in Spain.” Journal of Zoology in press (2015).[Full Text]
Rodriguez-Varela, R., A. Tagliacozzo, I. Ureña, N. Garcia, E. Cregut-Bonnoure, M. A. Mannino, J. L. Arsuaga, and C. Valdiosera. “Ancient DNA Evidence of Iberian Lynx Palaeoendemism.” Quaternary Science Reviews 112 (2015): 172-80.[Full Text]
Schwartz, M. K., K. L. Pilgrim, K. S. McKelvey, E. L. Lindquist, J. J. Claar, S. Loch, and L. F. Ruggiero. “Hybridization between Canada Lynx and Bobcats: Genetic Results and Management Implications.” [In English]. Conservation Genetics 5, no. 3 (Jun 2004): 349-55.[Full Text]
Werdelin, L. “The Evolution of Lynxes.” Annales Zoologici Fennici 18, no. 37-71 (1981).[Full Text]