Felines of North America: How to Tell the Difference Between a Bobcat, Lynx, or Puma
The continent of North America spans from the Canadian arctic to the Panamanian rainforest, and is home to many different species of wild felines. Jaguar, ocelot, jaguarundi, bobcat, puma, and lynx all call this continent home. But of these feline species, there are three with the widest ranges spanning much of North America – the bobcat, lynx, and puma. These three species are considered the most common cats of the continent. That being said, these wild cats are extremely elusive creatures, and even the most skilled wildlife professionals are challenged to catch a glimpse of them in the wild. Personally, I’ve only caught the blur of a darting bobcat, the brief passing of a lynx, and haven’t even seen the tracks of a puma. North America’s felines are not easy to see!
All the following images were taken by Ryan Pennesi in the Northwoods of Minnesota, many using the technique of “camera trapping.” Ryan and I met while working as Naturalists at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in Finland, Minnesota in 2013. I highly encourage you to check out Ryan Pennesi Photography to enjoy the wild moments he has been able to capture. Ryan is well known for his work with remote cameras. This method involves putting a DSLR camera into a waterproof case mounted with a photo glass window. The camera then is wired to a passive infrared sensor that detects movement and heat. Wireless flashes are housed in their own waterproof cases nearby and are triggered along with the camera’s shutter. This technique allows Ryan to have a set of eyes in the forest. His knowledge of animal signs, behaviors, and habitats goes a long way in capturing these wild moments. Ryan devotes many hours of scouting the field to find the ideal location for each camera trap. With the help of Ryan Pennesi’s remote trail cameras, we’ll get a chance to peek into the secretive lives of three of North America’s favorite felines.
North America’s Feline of Many Names: The Puma
To get any confusion out of the way we must note that pumas (Scientific Name: Puma concolor) go by a wide variety of names. Most used names for this species include mountain lion, cougar, panther, and occasionally catamount. Regardless of the name used for these cats, they are all considered one species that span the largest range of any feline of the Americas. Pumas are found from southern Argentina all the way into northern Canada. This adaptable species inhabits a variety of habitats including alpine forests, grasslands, rainforests, and deserts. In fact, even the city of Los Angeles is home to resident pumas. Pumas are notoriously shy and are seldom spotted even within the Rocky Mountains, where their populations are thriving.
Compared to bobcats and lynx, the puma is a much larger cat, weighing around 140 pounds. Puma fur is a uniform tawny color, with cubs losing their spots after just two-three months of age. Another distinguishing feature is the puma’s long slender tail, compared to the short tails of bobcats and lynx. Of these three species of cats, the puma is by far the easiest to identify from the rest. That’s if you’re lucky enough to catch a glimpse.
Throughout much of the United States, verified puma sightings are rare. These images were captured in the Northwoods of Minnesota and were quite the exceptional accomplishment to be celebrated! Ryan’s remote cameras that caught this puma in Minnesota are considered the highest quality photographic record of this species in the entire state! According to Minnesota Department of Natural Resources biologists, the last verified puma sighting in this region was in 2016. Ryan had set up his DSLR camera trap at this location with the goal of photographing the scent-marking behavior of bobcats. From this location he managed to photograph snowshoe hare, squirrels, porcupine, bobcats, black bears, and now a passing puma. This individual is likely a young male puma on the move from western states. Because of the significance of this verified sighting, Ryan has been asked to refrain from disclosing the specific location of this sighting to help protect the puma.
North America’s Most Common Feline: The Bobcat
Between these three feline species, the bobcat (Scientific Name: Lynx rufus) is the most abundant, with an estimated population of around one million throughout North America. This species inhabits ecosystems as variable as the Mexican desert and the Canadian Northwoods. Bobcats are roughly twice the size of the average housecat, and prey on small mammals and birds. This species is naturally solitary and territorial, using scent as their main form of communication with other bobcats. They scent mark on travel routes to help define their territory to other cats. These markers help to minimize confrontations and reduce competition for prey.
Adult bobcat peaking through a dark Minnesota winter. ©Ryan Pennesi Photography Bobcat captured with a remote camera crossing a log in a Minnesota forest. ©Ryan Pennesi Photography
The Elusive North American Feline: The Lynx
The Canada lynx (Scientific Name: Lynx canadensis) is by far the most uncommon sighting of these three North American cats. As their name entails this species ranges throughout Canada and is widespread throughout Alaska. Within the lower 48 states lynx are a much rarer occurrence, with populations centered around the Great Lakes regions and the Rocky Mountains. Scientists have noted that lynx populations are healthiest where continuous snow cover lasts at least four months of the year. These areas are believed to give lynx a competitive advantage over other predators, because of their advanced winter adaptations.
How to Tell the Difference Between a Bobcat and a Lynx
Pumas are an easy species to distinguish against other North American felines. But telling the difference between Canada lynx and bobcats is quite the challenge. These two cats are very similar in size, shape, and pattern. To make matters worse bobcats and lynx often share the same habitats and can be found in the same regions of North America.
If you find yourself needing a quick how to guide for telling the differences between bobcats and lynx, here are four features to look for:
- Fur Color: Canada lynx sport a simple uniform stone color fur, lacking any dramatic markings. Bobcats on the other hand tend to have brown fur with visible spots, especially on their legs.
- Facial Features: While both cats have long tufted hairs on the tips of their ears, lynx have the more dramatic ear tufts. Lynx also have a shaggier face, with a longer “beard” of fur around their chins and necks.
- Legs for Days: Lynx have much longer legs, with especially large paws. These adaptations help with navigating deep snow in the winter, as their feet act like snowshoes. Bobcats have a much stockier physique with smaller paws.
- Telling Tails: Even though bobcats are named for their “bob” tail, their tails are actually longer than the tails of Canada lynx. Another distinguishing feature between the two is tail color. Bobcats have black tipped tail with white banding, while lynx have an entirely black tail tip.
The graphic below helps to emphasize the differences between Canada lynx and bobcat based on their physical traits.
One last interesting fact! Bobcats technically are a type of lynx. Any cat species within the “Lynx” genus is technically a lynx, bobcats just don’t have “lynx” in their common name like the rest of their relatives. Given these two species are in the same family, their similarities are undeniable.
Seeing the Felines of North America
Wild cats are some of the most elusive creatures on earth. With a dramatic increase in urban sprawl throughout North America, wild cat habitats are shrinking. This lack of wilderness has created an increase in encounters with pumas, lynx, and bobcats, though still rare, all three species try and avoid excessive human contact. When traveling, or living, in cat country make sure to be alert! If you are lucky enough to observe the felines of North America in the wild, please keep your distance. Let them go about their natural behaviors without disturbance.