Here, Kitty

Just because you never see them doesn’t mean the bobcats aren’t out there.

Illustration by Robert Meganck

This is a story about bobcats, but it begins with coyotes. 

Several years ago, researchers from Virginia Tech began conducting a study to try and assess the presence, population and diet of coyotes, a non-native species that has spread through Virginia since first arriving here in the late 1970s. In particular, the study sought to determine what impact these carnivores might be having on Virginia’s deer. Since you can’t stop a coyote and ask what it had for dinner, part of the study involved the prosaic task of surveying some 200 kilometers of roads, trails and logging roads in Bath and Rockingham counties in search of scat. Not to put too fine a point on it here, it was 200 kilometers of picking up animal droppings.

What the researchers found, however, when they put those specimens under examination, was a surprise: not a passel of coyotes, but a bunch of bobcats. “When we did genetic identification on the samples, we got more bobcats than bears or coyotes,” says Dr. Marcella Kelly, a predator specialist and an associate professor in the department of fish and wildlife conservation at Virginia Tech, who oversaw the study. “We were not expecting that.”

This surprising result prompted a new interest in looking at the elusive bobcat, Virginia’s only surviving native wild cat. 

The bobcat is (probably) named for its short, “bobbed” tail, or (possibly) for the “bobbing” gait of its run (the result of having hind legs slightly longer than front). Its scientific classification is Lynx rufus, or “red lynx,” and it shares some characteristics with its larger Northern cousin, the Canadian lynx—including the short tail and black tufts on the points of the ears (though these are far more prominent and noticeable on the lynx than on the bobcat). And bobcats are diminutive: The smallest females are not much bigger than housecats, while full-grown males can weigh upward of 30 pounds. 

Bobcats are known particularly for two qualities. The first is their solitary and secretive nature. “Not if I see you coming first” appears to be the bobcat’s operating policy, so despite the fact that the bobcat is North America’s most abundant wild cat species, sightings are uncommon. Kelly notes that the wild cats are stealthy and quiet and, with their dappled, reddish-brown coat, “their camouflage is really, really good,” so they blend in easily with their surroundings. 

The other notable bobcat characteristic is ferocity. Don’t let its resemblance to an oversized tabby fool you; this cat doesn’t kid around. Bobcats are fearless, stalk-and-ambush apex predators, capable of short bursts of streaking speed and a bounding leap of as much as 10 feet. Though attacks on humans are rare and unlikely, in 2015 a Virginia turkey hunter, armed with a cellphone camera and the dubious strategy of luring a passing bobcat with “a few squirrel distress calls,” captured video of a bobcat approaching, crouching and then attacking in a frenetic blur. Fortunately, both cat and hunter escaped the encounter unharmed.

Bobcats are highly adaptable and found in a wide range of territories and terrains throughout the U.S. In fact, researchers in the Dallas-Fort Worth area actually discovered them living quite successfully in veritable suburbia, prowling just off major roadways and chasing down prey on golf courses. Their diet typically consists of rabbits, squirrels and small rodents, but they have been documented taking on much larger prey, including full-grown deer. 

And deer were definitely evident in the bobcat scat collected by the Virginia Tech researchers. “We think they are predators on fawns for sure, but people have seen them prey on adult deer, so we are pretty sure that is happening too, but we don’t know how much,” says Kelly.

This is the kind of information that the Virginia Tech researchers seek to learn from their study, explains Kelly. Results of the scat DNA analysis are expected early in 2017, and from that analysis it should be possible to identify how many individual bobcats were represented in the samples. The researchers also have been trying to capture images of bobcats by using heat- and motion-triggered “camera traps.” 

“We want a nice clear image of their pelt because you can tell individuals by their spot patterns,” says Kelly. “The main problem we are having with bobcats is they go by really quickly, so a lot of times you only get a tail-tip.” Finally, the researchers hope to capture and GPS-collar at least 15 bobcats to track the movement, range and activity of these elusive cats. 

“They kind of fly under the radar,” says Kelly. “It will be especially interesting if we find out there are a lot more of them out there than we realize.”

This article originally appeared in our February 2017 issue. 

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