The Six Wildcats of North America
North America is home to six species of wildcats—bobcats, lynx, ocelots, cougars, jaguars, and jaguarundis—all of which are considered native to North America.
With more and more of their natural habitat disappearing, wildcats—as well as many other types of wildlife—are coming in closer contact with man. In this article, you will learn all about the wildcats of North America, from specs like size and weight to fun facts about what makes these cats unique.
Note: The following sizes and weights refer to adult males.
1. Bobcat (Lynx rufus)
Diet: rabbits, mice, squirrels, reptiles and fowl (including farmers' chickens)
Size: 26–41 inches long (minus the tail, which is 4–7 inches)
Weight: 11–30 pounds
Average Life Span in the Wild: 10–12 years
Range: from southern Canada through most of Mexico
Physical Description: The bobcat and the Canadian lynx are sometimes thought of as the same animal. They are both of the same family but they belong to different species. The bobcat is about twice the size of the average house cat, with long legs, large paws and black-tufted ears. They get their name from their short, black-tipped tail, which appears to be “bobbed” or cut off.
Conservation Status: Least Concern (i.e. does not qualify as threatened or near threatened), population stable
The bobcat has the largest range and is the most abundant of any wildcat in North America.
Bobcats are nocturnal animals and are rarely seen by humans. They inhabit woodlands, forest areas and swamp lands, as well as some semi-arid areas. Some scientists speculate that the “tufts” of their ears are used like hearing aids.
Due to their proclivity for eating the farmer’s chickens, they are often regarded as a nuisance and are shot by farmers. Many hunters will also kill bobcats as they eat the quail, pheasant and chukar that many hunters shoot for sport.
2. Canadian Lynx (Lynx canadensis)
Diet: mostly snowshoe hares, but also mice, red squirrels, voles and grouse
Size: 32–40 inches long (minus the tail, which is 4–8 inches)
Weight: 22–44 pounds
Average Life Span in the Wild: up to 15 years
Range: Canada and the northern United States
Physical Description: The Canada lynx is about the same size as the bobcat—though the lynx has more hair, especially around the face and feet to keep them warmer in the colder climate. Both species have tufted ears and a bobbed, black-tipped tail as well. Their feet are used as “snow shoes” and are larger and hairier than a bobcat's for added insulation from the cold and snow.
Conservation Status: Least Concern, population stable
Lynx have excellent eyesight; they can spot a mouse up to 250 feet away! Interestingly, this trait is reflected in myths from several cultures. The lynx is a popular figure in Greek, Norse, and North American mythology—it sees what others can't and is skilled at revealing hidden truths.
The lynx is actually the bobcat's “cold weather” cousin. There are several species of lynx. The Asian and European lynxes are larger that the North American species, the Canada lynx.
As the name would suggest, Canada lynx are generally found in Canada, though they also inhabit some of the colder parts of the US. They inhabit mainly forest and tundra regions, and they know how to make the most of their environment; in order to save their prey to eat later, Canada lynxes will often cover it with a layer of snow!
The Canada lynxes' diet consists mainly of snowshoe hares. There is a correlation between the number of snowshoe hares and the population of lynx. As the number of snowshoe hares decline, so do the number of lynx. The larger Eurasian lynx will hunt deer as well as smaller animals.
3. Ocelot (Leopardus pardalis)
Diet: birds, mammals (from rodents to small monkeys), frogs and reptiles
Size: 22–39 inches long (minus the tail, which is 10–16 inches)
Weight: 24–35 pounds
Average Life Span in the Wild: 7–10 years
Range: primarily from Mexico through northern South America, with very few specimens in southernmost Texas and Arizona
Physical Description: The ocelot has short, tawny or reddish-brown fur with black spots and rosette-shaped markings. Their faces have two black stripes down each side (running from the muzzle and eyes back toward the neck) and their tails have black bands.
Conservation Status: Least Concern, population decreasing. Though ocelots are listed as "Least Concern" on the IUCN Red List, they are endangered in the United States. At one time, they could be found throughout the southwestern parts of the country; however, due to their beautifully spotted fur, they were illegally hunted to the point that their only remaining footholds in the US are in a few small, southernmost areas of Texas and Arizona.
While most cats strip their prey of feathers and fur as they eat it, ocelots refuse to eat even a bite until they've plucked off every last feather and bit of fur.
The ocelot is sometimes called the “Painted Leopard” or "Dwarf Leopard". They can often be found in trees, stalking their prey, and unlike most other cats, ocelots don’t mind the water and can swim very well. They are primarily nocturnal, solitary animals.
4. Mountain Lion (Felis concolor or Puma concolor)
Diet: preferably deer, but also coyotes and other mammals (e.g. raccoons and porcupines)
Size: 59–108 inches long (minus the tail, which is 21–36 inches)
Weight: 120–140 pounds
Top Speed: 50 mph
Average Life Span in the Wild: 8–13 years
Range: Primarily found in southwestern Canada, the western US, and almost all of Mexico and Central and South America. Small numbers found in pockets of several other state, including Florida and Nebraska, and parts of central Canada. There have also been sightings in Georgia, as well as North and South Carolina, and small populations are returning to states such as Oklahoma, Missouri and Arkansas.
Physical Description: Mountain lions are beautiful animals with tawny-colored coats (ranging from brown to reddish or grayish) and no markings. Their ears have black marks on the back, and their chests are white. They also have white fur around their mouth and on their neck, belly and inner legs.
Conservation Status: Least Concern, population decreasing. Though the cougar population was nearly extirpated in most of its eastern North American range, it is globally listed as "Least Concern".
Although mountain lions are large and have many characteristics of the "big cats", they are still considered to be in the "small cat" family. They are, however, the largest cats in that category.
The mountain lion goes by several names—puma, cougar, catamount, and panther—and is a powerful and feared predator.
Mountain lions have been known to attack humans. However, statistics show that on average, there are only 4 attacks and 1 death each year in all of the US and Canada. Mountain lions will be more likely to attack a person who is alone or a small child.
5. Jaguar (Panthera onca)
Diet: deer, crocodiles, snakes, monkeys, sloths, tapirs, turtles, frogs, fish and eggs
Size: 60–72 inches long (minus the tail, which is 27–36 inches)
Weight: 79–211 pounds (but some adult males have weighed as much as 350 pounds!)
Top Speed: 50 mph
Average Life Span in the Wild: 12–15 years
Range: from Mexico through Central and South America
Physical Description: The jaguar resembles a leopard but is usually larger and more sturdy. It has a broader head and shorter legs than the leopard. Their coat is usually yellow or tan but can vary from brown to black as well. Their spots are more solid on their head and neck, becoming rosette-type patterns along their sides and back (this is another way to tell jaguars and leopards apart—the rosettes on a jaguars' coats have spots inside them).
Conservation Status: The jaguar is listed as "Near Threatened". Sadly, though jaguars were once widespread in the United States, only a few now remain here. Their population has been almost completely eliminated in the United States, though there are occasional sightings along the border of Arizona and Mexico, with a group of 80–120 being found in remote areas of the Sonora Mountains. It is estimated that approximately 15,000 jaguars remain in the wild, with the greatest populations in Mexico and South America.
The name "jaguar" is derived from the Native American word "yaguar," which means “he who kills with one leap”.
The jaguar is a solitary wild cat and normally lives and hunts alone. Their territory can range from between 19 to about 55 miles. Jaguars normally hunt on the ground, but will also climb trees and pounce on their prey from above. Like ocelots, jaguars also enjoy the water and will catch and eat fish. The jaguar has extremely powerful jaws and is known to pierce the skull of its prey, biting directly into the brain.
Jaguar Stalking and Attacking Crocodile
6. Jaguarundi (Herpailurus yagouaroundi)
Diet: rodents, rabbits, possums, armadillos, fowl (from quail to turkey), reptiles, amphibians, and farmer's chickens
Size: 21–30 inches long (minus the tail, which is 12–24 inches)
Weight: 6–20 pounds
Average Life Span in the Wild: 10–12 years
Range: from Mexico through Central and South America
Physical Description: Jaguarundis look more like weasels than the rest of their feline family, with slender bodies, short legs and sleek coats. Their coloring ranges from black or brownish-grey to red, and a litter can contain any combination of the colors (though the darker colors usually occur in the rain forest and the lighter colors in more arid environments).
Conservation Status: Least Concern, population decreasing
Jaguarundis are some of the only felines that don't have contrasting colors on the backs of their ears.
Jaguarundis are solitary cats, though they occasionally travel in pairs, and unlike most other cats, they are generally most active during the day. Allegedly, they were once used to control rodent populations in Central America, though this is no longer the case.
Wildcats and Habitat Loss
Though most of these wildcats are quite elusive, habitat loss is pushing them into closer and closer contact with humans. To find out more about habitat loss and what you can do to fight it, visit The National Wildlife Federation's website.
While wildcats (and other wildlife) are being forced to venture closer to urban areas, it's still fairly rare to come into contact with any of these felines. In any case, at least now you know a little more about the wonderful wildcats of North America.
Wildcat KittensClick thumbnail to view full-size
- Bobcat. (2018, September 21). National Geographic. Retrieved on December 12, 2018.
- Lynx. (2018, September 24). National Geographic. Retrieved on December 12, 2018.
- Basic Facts About Canada Lynx. (2016, September 19). Defenders of Wildlife. Retrieved December 12, 2018.
- Ocelot. (2018, September 21). National Geographic. Retrieved on December 12, 2018.
- Ocelot. (n.d.). San Diego Zoo. Retrieved December 12, 2018.
- Cougar. (2018, September 21). National Geographic. Retrieved on December 12, 2018.
- Jaguar. (2018, September 21). National Geographic. Retrieved on December 12, 2018.
- The top 5 differences between jaguars and leopards. (2015, April 21). Wildcat Sanctuary. Retrieved December 12, 2018.
- Jaguarundi Facts. (2018, January 18). Big Cat Rescue. Retrieved December 12, 2018.
Questions & Answers
What species of cat is it that lives in the swamps of southern Louisiana? Its coat is darker and it’s stockier than the pictures I found of the Florida panther.
The only wildcats that are known to be in southern Louisiana are the cougar and the bobcat.Helpful 11
© 2012 Sheila Brown