In Search of the Elusive Canada Lynx

The iconic and oh-so-majestic Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) quickly conjures up the vast forest lands of Canada. In Eastern Canada, though, humans have greatly modified its habitat. Over the last few centuries, picks and shovels have shrunk these so-called vast forests and jeopardized the future of this big shy cat in the region. In order to adapt conservation strategies to the needs of this species, we need to gain better understanding of the scope and impact of these habitat alterations.

A Canada lynx in the snow.

Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis). Image: © Getty Images

I am interested in lynx biology. Recently, I have been trying to understand the environmental factors that make this animal population viable. After spending several months working hard on maintaining and adding to the vertebrate collections at the museum, I am now returning to my research work on this animal.

I wanted to do field work to validate one of the mathematical models I worked out with two of my students, Lauren and Lindsay, to model the distribution of this lynx. This model assumes that the distribution of the feline is discontinuous in Eastern Canada, and that only a few forest habitats are suitable for it.

I started out by joining up with a group of Canadian and American researchers who have met regularly over the past few years in New Brunswick to study the region’s biodiversity. I then continued my field trip alone in the Lower St. Lawrence region of Quebec.

People sitting at tables examine specimens while others are standing and talking.

Meetings in Gagetown between various experts from all areas of Canada and the United States were a great opportunity to share field experiences and collectively learn more about the region’s biodiversity. Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

After many hours driving in pouring rain, I finally arrived in Gagetown, New Brunswick. The ground was too wet to set up my tent, but we found a spot in a storeroom where I could sleep until the weather improved. I joined up with biologists and scientists who had spent several days working in the old courtroom of the Queens County Courthouse—now converted into a study lab.

The next morning, I travelled to the Grand Lake Protected Natural Area (GLPNA) to check on my small mammal traps, along with two colleagues, Howie and Karen. Howie, one of my research associates, is one of the most dynamic mammalogists I’ve ever met. Karen, another mammalogist, is interested in the white-nose syndrome that affects North American bats.

Standing in a forest, Kamal Khidas examines the trap he is holding in his hands.

I check and set traps on several sites to learn more about the region’s fauna. Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

Mosquitos avidly greeted us on the first site—an open, wet habitat. I quickly became a prime target, having forgotten my mosquito repellent in my rush to pack my things in the morning. The entomology team was also there looking for ants.

We stepped into a canoe to get to French Island, just a short distance from shore. There, trapping sites consisted of thick wooded areas dominated by eastern hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis), some specimens reaching almost 20 metres in height. The undergrowth consisted mostly of mosses and lichens, as well as ferns (Dryopteris sp.) and bunchberries (Cornus canadensis) here and there.

The third site of the day was a fir stand (Abies balsamea) similar to the wooded lots on French Island. The next day, we checked our traps and recovered a few catches.

Kamal Khidas sitting at a table measuring a wolf skull.

By day, I patrol the forests, following the trail of the invisible lynx; by night, I take skull measurements in the lab on wolf specimens collected a few years ago in Eastern Canada for another research project. Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

The first traps were a success: we caught two mice (Peromyscus sp.; DNA analysis will be needed to determine if these are white-footed mice, P. maniculatus, or deer mice, P. leucopus) and a meadow jumping mouse (Zapus hudsonius) that were attracted by the tasty peanut-butter bait.

Rodent specimens pinned on cardboard and labeled.

Specimens collected in the Grand Lake Protected Natural Area are prepared on the spot in the lab according to museum standards. Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

New traps were set up on other sites. Over the next few days, several other mice were collected—a few woodland jumping mice (Napaeozapus insignis), meadow voles (Microtus pennsylvanicus) and red-backed voles (Myodes gapperi). No red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) were caught though; they are probably hard to catch because they are extremely wary of anything new. Lynxes hunt these when the snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus)—their favourite prey—becomes rare. No traces of snowshoe hares either. Hmmmm!

I also took many notes on the GLPNA’s natural environment to get a better grasp of the needs of the Canada lynx in the region. I explored several other forest habitats, including deciduous stands at various stages of development, but did not find a single sign of the lynx’s presence. This is definitely not a favourable environment for this animal.

A girl sits and prepares a mouse specimen while a man stands nearby.

The future of mammalogy is bright in Canada: here, under Howie’s watchful eye, an open-house visitor at the Gagetown lab prepares a mouse that was collected in the field. Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

We know that lynxes are a rare sight in New Brunswick, and this has been true for a long time now. After the Europeans arrived, these animals disappeared from a large area of the Maritimes and southern Quebec. Since the 1950s, a small number have been spotted in New Brunswick, but the population density is still very low. It is a protected species in the Maritimes.

An illustration of a Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) in a forest.

Canada lynx. Image: Charles Douglas © Canadian Museum of Nature

This scarcity concords with the predictions of the mathematical model we developed. The situation I observed in the field also confirms this model. Lynxes avoid these habitats because they are not favourable and because various human activities, such as logging and road construction, disturb the environment.

A man speaks while a camera operator films the scene.

In New Brunswick, I gave an interview to local media about the work I do in the field and in the lab. Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

My mission in New Brunswick was almost over. My next destination was the Gaspé Peninsula (Péninsule de la Gaspésie), Quebec. On the way, I made several stops to take notes on this south-north route. Mixed coniferous and deciduous stands dominated the forest landscape.

In the first part of my work in the Gaspé Peninsula, I explored several sites in the Rimouski Wildlife Reserve. These were mostly lots with young vegetation no older than 10 to 30 years, made up of regenerating deciduous trees. These lots are in the process of healing after heavy logging activities in the mid-1990s. Moose are more abundant here than elsewhere. Philippe, the forestry technician on duty in the reserve, confirmed what I had predicted: lynxes are very rare here, if not totally absent, because the environment has been heavily modified.

Kamal Khidas takes notes while standing in a forest.

In the field, I make observations and take sufficient notes and photographs to fully describe the available habitats and their potential for harbouring viable lynx populations. Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

Things were very different near the Rivière Patapédia, as this region included yellow-birch stands (Betula alleghaniensis) and white-spruce stands (Picea glauca) that were less damaged and more mature. I then crossed the St. Lawrence River on a boat to reach the North Shore and the Saguenay region, where I found mixed forests similar to those in the Patapédia region.

Based on the clues I found (including tracks and droppings left by lynxes and hares, their main prey), and on the many other observations I made, I concluded that this was a preferred habitat for the lynx. That was reward enough for me.

Though it covered only a small portion of the vast region I am studying, this 3146 kilometre voyage has allowed me to visit various instructive environments. It was also helpful to meet with other scientists. Back at the office, an endless list of new emails scrolls before my dream-filled eyes still brimming with quaint images. Many of these urgently require my dazed attention. It looks like busy times are ahead at the office!

Translated from French.

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