The Five Wildcats of North America
North America is home to four native species of wildcats. The bobcat, lynx, ocelot and the cougar are considered native to North America. Sadly, though jaguars were once widespread in the United States, only a few now remain here, with the rest in Central and South 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. Learn more about the wildcats of North America.
1. Bobcat (Lynx rufus)
The bobcat is the most commonly known wildcats in North America. It is also the only species of wildcat that is not currently on the endangered list. 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. They have long legs, large paws and tufted ears. They get their name from their short, black-tipped tail, which appears to be “bobbed” or cut off. The “tufts” of their ears are actually used like hearing aids, and they have excellent eyesight.
With 12 subspecies, the bobcat ranges from southern Canada to northern Mexico. At one time, the bobcat’s territory was widespread over the US; however, their numbers have decreased over the years. 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. The bobcat's diet consists of rabbits, mice, squirrels, reptiles and fowl, including 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.
Bobcat in Arizona
2. Lynx (Felis lynx)
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.
The Canada lynx is about the same size as the bobcat and has tufted ears and a bobbed tail as well. Lynxes' tails are also tipped in black. The lynx has more hair than the bobcat, especially around the face and feet to keep them warmer in the colder climate. Their feet are used as “snow shoes” and are larger and have more hair for added insulation from the cold and 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.
Canada Lynx in the Snow
3. Ocelot (Leopardus pardalis)
The ocelot is sometimes called the “Painted Leopard” or "Dwarf Leopard". At one time, they could be found throughout the southwestern parts of the US. However, due to their beautifully spotted fur, they have been illegally hunted to the point that they are now on the endangered species list. Occasionally you will see ocelots in Arizona or the southernmost parts of Texas, but they are most commonly seen in Mexico and the northern parts of South America. They are primarily nocturnal, solitary animals.
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 and their tails have black bands. They weigh between 18 and 40 pounds and are 27 to 39 inches in length (not including their tail, which is between 10 and 18 inches in length. They can be found in trees, stalking monkeys and birds. They also eat small mammals and rodents, frogs, fish and some reptiles. Unlike most other cats, they don’t mind the water and can swim very well.
4. Mountain Lion (Felis concolor)
The mountain lion goes by several names—puma, cougar, catamount, and panther—and is a powerful and feared predator. Mountain lions are beautiful animals with tawny-colored coats and no markings. They weigh approximately 120–140 pounds, and although they are large with many characteristics of the "big cats", they are considered to be the largest of the "small cat" family.
Mountain lions prefer to prey on deer but will also attack and eat coyotes and other mammals, such as raccoons and porcupines. The cougars population was nearly extirpated in most of its eastern North American range, except for Florida, where there is a subspecies referred to as the Florida panther (although there have also been sightings in Georgia, as well as North and South Carolina). The cougar ranges across most western American states, as well as some parts of Canada. There are also small populations returning to states such as Oklahoma, Missouri and Arkansas.
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)
The jaguar is the largest wildcat in the Americas and has been almost completely eliminated in the United States, though there are 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 has extremely powerful jaws and is known to pierce the skull of its prey, biting directly into the brain.
The jaguar resembles a leopard but is usually larger and more sturdy. It has a broad 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.
Adult males are 25–30 inches tall at the shoulders and 43–75 inches in length, with the females being a bit smaller. Jaguars normally weigh between 79–211 pounds, but some adult males have weighed as much as 350 pounds.
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.
Jaguars' prey includes deer, crocodiles, snakes, monkeys, sloths, tapirs, turtles, eggs and frogs. They also enjoy the water and will catch and eat fish.
Jaguar Stalking and Attacking Caiman
Few people will actually come in contact with any of these wildcats in their natural habitat, but at least now you know a little more about these wonderful wildcats of North America.
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 4
© 2012 Sheila Brown