CatSG

Iberian lynx

Lynx pardinus

IUCN Red List: Endangered

Weight: 8-16 kg
Body length: 65-92 cm
Tail length: 11-16 cm
Longevity: up to 14 years
Litter size: 1-4 cubs

Description

The Iberian lynx occurred sympatrically with the Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) in the Pleistocene. Previously the Iberian lynx was considered as conspecific with the Eurasian lynx but today they are defined to be two different species on the basis of genetic and morphological characteristics.

The Iberian lynx is about half of the size of the Eurasian lynx. In both ecology and average body weight, the Iberian lynx is very similar to the Canada lynx and bobcat of North America. It has a small head, a short body and long legs. Its tail is short with a black tip and on the ears it has the characteristical black hair tufts. The coat of the Iberian lynx is yellowish, reddish, greyish or brownish coloured and distinctly brown or black spotted. Its belly is only lightly coloured. In the region of Doñana the coat pattern formed by dark spots and stripes was fixed since early 1960s, while several types of coat pattern (form small less distinct spots to dark big spots) naturally occur in the Sierra Morena. The Iberian lynx has a conspicuous facial ruff which is more distinct for adults. Males are generally heavier than females.

Other names

Language/region

Name

English

Pardel lynx, Spanish lynx

French

lynx d'Espagne

German

Pardelluchs

Spanish

lince iberico

Portugese

lince-ibérico, lobo cerval

Status and Distribution

The Iberian lynx is considered Endangered by the IUCN Red List. Historically the Iberian lynx occurred in all parts of the Iberian Peninsula and was widespread, but by the early 20th century, the Iberian lynx had become very rare. Only two small isolated populations remain - one in southwestern Spain, in Andújar-Cardeña in the eastern Sierra Morena, and the Doñana-Aljarafe population, in the Doñana Protected Area and the surrounding area. These are the only known breeding populations.

In 1987-1988 there were estimated to be 1,136 lynx roaming in Spain. In 2002 the two remaining populations were estimated to number only 25 (Andújar-Cardeña) and 18 (Doñana) adults. Since 2002 the Iberian lynx populations have increased thanks to conservation efforts. By 2011, 214 lynx (90 adults) lived in the population of Andújar-Cardeña and 88 animals (32 adults) in the Doñana-Aljarafe population. Together with the lynx from the two reintroduced populations of Guarrizas and Gudalmellato, there were in total 132 adults free ranging in Spain in 2011. Between 2002 and 2012 the population size of the Iberian lynx increased to 156 mature individuals and the area of occupancy increased to 1,040 km². The two autochthonous populations in Sierra Morena and Doñana are still isolated from each other making them very vulnerable and the current number of lynx is still considered insufficient for the survival of the species in the long term.

In the 1990s, a survey in Portugal based on personal interviews and records of cadavers suggested an Iberian lynx population of about 40 lynx fragmented in small subpopulations in: Algarve Mountains, Sado Valley, Guadiana, S. Mamede and Malcata. However subsequent local field surveys indicated the absence of resident animals and also research for signs in 2002 did not detect any lynx presence. The only evidence for lynx presence came from genetic analysis of a scat found in the Guadiana area in 2001. In the late 2014 the first Iberian lynx were reintroduced in Portugal.

Extant distribution area of the Iberian lynx (IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015).

Habitat

The Iberian lynx lives in Mediterranean forests composed of native oaks and abundant undergrowth and in maquis thickets. It favours a mosaic of dense scrub for shelter and open pasture for hunting. The Iberian lynx is usually absent from cropland and exotic tree plantations (eucalyptus and pine) where rabbits are also scarce. In the Doñana National Park, the majority of resting spots of lynx during the day were located in thick heather scrub. Suitable breeding dens and water are important habitat features for the Iberian lynx. Females choose small cavities (rock caves, branch piles, dense bushes, hollow trees, etc.) as breeding dens. The Iberian lynx is usually found between 400-900 m elevation but can occur up to 1,600 m.  

Habitat of Iberian lynx in Doñana, Spain.
Maquis shrubland, Sierra de Andujar Natural Park, Andalusia, Spain.

Ecology and Behaviour

The Iberian lynx is mainly crepuscular and nocturnal but can also be active at daytime. Home ranges vary between 4-30 km². Where rabbits are abundant home ranges are smaller than in areas where rabbits are scarcer. Ranges of males tend to be larger than female ones and include the ones of several females. In Doñana, home range size averaged 18 km² for males and 10 km² for females.  Female home ranges are exclusive. The daily travel distance of the Iberian lynx is around 7 km, with males usually travelling further than females. The Iberian lynx has dispersal limitations and it is difficult for them to cross open areas over 5 km wide. The Iberian lynx uses urine and faeces for communication.

The Iberian lynx only breeds in Mediterranean shrubland with sufficient dense rabbit populations. The mating season takes place between January and July with a peak in January-February. Most births take place in March-April. The gestation lasts for approximately two months. Usually one to two cubs per female survives until they become independent at 7-10 months. At 8-28 months cubs begin to disperse. The age at first reproduction depends upon demographic and environmental factors but can already take place at two years of age for females. The cubs, however, then seem to have lower survival chances. In a high-density population, age at first reproduction depends upon when a female acquires a territory. In the wild, female Iberian lynx usually breed only with 3 to 9 years. 

Iberian lynx cubs playing with each other.
Iberian lynx cubs.
Iberian lynx mother with her cub.
Iberian lynx cubs inspecting a rabbit.

Prey

The Iberian lynx is a specialized feeder and takes primarily (80-100%) wild rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) with a dependency similar to the relationship between the Canadian lynx and snowshoe hares. Alternatively the Iberian lynx preys on rodents, partridges, juvenile deer and fallow deer, hares, ducks, geese, reptiles, etc. They also feed on fresh carcasses. The Iberian lynx also kills (but not eats) other carnivores such as feral cats or foxes. In the winter months the proportion of rabbits taken decreases slightly and more ungulates and alternative prey are eaten. In the wetland area of Doñana along the south-western Spanish coast, ducks during their breeding season are a seasonally important food resource for lynx from March to May. 

Iberian lynx with its prey.
Iberian lynx eating a rabbit.

Main Threats

The Iberian lynx is naturally very vulnerable as it depends highly on one prey species, has a limited dispersal and because its habitat spectrum is narrow. The Iberian lynx populations declined due to drastic reductions of its main prey, the rabbit, because of habitat alterations, over-hunting and diseases. The poxvirus, myxomatosis, since the 1950s and Rabbit Haemorrhagi Disease (RHD) since the late 1980s led to the virtual disappearance of rabbits in many areas. However, also habitat destruction, deterioration and alteration due to agricultural and industrial development, conversion of native Mediterranean forest to plantations, and direct persecution impacted Iberian lynx populations negatively. Many mosaic cultural landscapes have been homogenized during the 20th century. Between 1960 and 1978 the Iberian lynx lost about 80% of its habitat and until the 1950s, the Spanish government paid a bounty for killing lynx.

The Iberian lynx has been protected since the 1970s but still today lynx are shot or caught illegally, hunted with dogs or killed in traps set for other predators. The increasing traffic also affects the lynx populations leading to road kills as well as creating barriers for dispersal. Such non-natural mortality due to traffic and human persecution together with habitat destruction and fragmentation are the main threats for the Iberian lynx. Even in the well protected Doñana National Park complex most deaths are human-related. Also intrinsic factors such as low genetic variability can have a negative impact on the populations. The effective population size of each isolated subpopulation numbers not more than 25. This can lead to a loss of genetic diversity and inbreeding through genetic drift. New virus strains arriving in the region could lead again to a depression in rabbit availability. Moreover, disease which affect felids directly are spreading too.  In 2007, a Feline Leukemia Virus epidemic killed 35% of the adult males in Doñana-Aljarafe. 

Conservation Efforts and Protection Status

The Iberian lynx is included in Appendix I of CITES and in Appendix II of the Bern Convention and Annexes II and IV of the EU Habitats and Species Directive. It is fully protected in Spain and Portugal.

In the 1960s it was recognized that both abundance and distribution of the Iberian lynx had decreased dramatically since the early 20th century. A recovery program is now in place since 2002 trying to save the Iberian lynx from extinction. This program is focused on the two remaining breeding populations in Doñana and Andúkar-Cardeña in Sierra Morena. It aims to preserve 98% of the Iberian lynx's gene pool over the next 100 years. Priorities for this program are to protect suitable habitat for new lynx populations and to create connectivity between the remaining populations. In this regard it aims to stabilize the populations by combating threats, to increase the number of lynx in wild populations and to increase the number of wild population. Conservation actions taken so far include restocking numbers of rabbits, habitat improvements, construction of artificial breeding dens for lynx, disease management, genetic management to avoid gene loss, translocation and reintroduction of lynx and establishment of road signs and fauna underpasses.

The program is so far successful, with habitat and rabbit populations widely restored and with an increasing Iberian lynx population. Regions with sufficient prey densities are very important for the Iberian lynx recovery. Additionally captive breeding programs were started in Spain and Portugal. Five breeding centers were constructed containing animals from both breeding populations. These breeding programs are critically important to fully recover the Iberian lynx as they provide a vital gene bank. Since 2009 several Iberian lynx could be reintroduced into the two surviving autochthonous populations in Sierra Morena and Doñana and since 2010 some lynx could be reintroduced in Guarrizas and Gudalmellato to help connect the two populations. Both autochthonous populations have increased in numbers and distribution area. Moreover, in 2014 the first lynx reintroductions in Portugal took place. These successes were only possible through careful planning and managing of the recovery program and the integration of various partners such as land owners, national authorities, hunters and environmental agencies. Public awareness and education programs have helped changing attitudes towards the lynx particularly among private landowners in lynx areas. Education and awareness activities go on and lynx areas are regularly monitored for illegal traps.

Further action is still needed to save the Iberian lynx such as continuous effort to stimulate rabbit recovery, enhance habitat quality, combat threats, such as road mortalities and possible diseases outbreaks, and the restocking and release of lynx in new areas to connect populations. There is a need to implement recovery plans in all regions where the lynx once occurred over the past decades and to continue to carefully monitor the Iberian lynx as well as the conservation measures that are in place.