The story of the Iberian lynx is a bit of a sad one. As I’ve said before, I’m a big fan of cats, so I’m always happy to blog about one. Unfortunately, the Iberian lynx isn’t the most fun cat to blog about, as it is critically endangered. In fact, the Iberian lynx is the most vulnerable felid in the world.

Back before I did a whole lot of research on Carnivore (the Order, not the dietary classification) home range size, I thought the lynx was simply a species of feline. I was unaware that there are actually four species of cat in the genus Lynx, which are: the Canadian lynx, the Eurasian lynx, The Iberian lynx and the bobcat.

An Iberian lynx, with the lynx’s typical tufted ears and sideburns. Image By (c) Programa de Conservación Ex-situ del Lince Ibérico http://www.lynxexsitu.es, CC BY 3.0

Iberian lynx differ from Eurasian lynx in a number of ways. The have a lighter coloured coat, and more vivid spots than Eurasian lynx. Its coat is shorter than other lynx, as is lives in a warmer climate. Two very important differences help explain why the Eurasian lynx is abundant and the Iberian lynx is on the brink of extinction. The first is the Iberian lynx’s habitat choice: it prefers scrublands, which are often used for human development. The second reason is that the Iberian lynx is a rabbit specialist, and feeds almost exclusively on them. The Eurasian lynx, which is almost twice the size of its cousin, lives in forests and hunts a variety of prey, meaning it has flexibility should one of its prey decline.

The Iberian lynx, however does not have this luxury, and although relying on one food source is usually a poor ecological choie, rabbits breed like… well, rabbits, and generally they shouldn’t seem like a food source that should go into decline. But they did, and largely due to the wonderful factor known as humanity. Or lack of, in this case. A disease called myxomatosis, which only affects rabbits, was discovered in Uruguay and subsequently introduced in Australia to control the rabbit population there. Which was a really questionable decision. As every horror movie about diseases has taught us, introducing diseases into places is never without its consequences. For Australia, those have been limited thus far, as rabbits are an invasive species and thus not a keystone to that ecosystem. But some bright fellow thought he’d use myxomatosis to control the rabbit population on his estate in France, and the results of this introduction have been devastating. 90% of rabbits in France died, and 95% in the UK. Unsurprisingly, this had an extreme effect on animals that rely on rabbit populations, and the Iberian lynx, whose diet consists of 80% rabbits, starved.

Further compounding this problem, a viral hemorrhagic disease that only affects rabbits and is extremely contagious and often fatal spread to Europe from China (though it’s thought the original source of the disease was European) in the 1980s. The combined effects of these two rabbit diseases and habitat loss reduced the Iberian lynx population to be about 100 in 2005. That’s a pretty scary number. Today there are 309 known wild individuals.

An Iberian lynx kitten. Captive breeding programs are helping bolster this endangered species’ numbers. By http://www.lynxexsitu.es, CC BY 3.0

Though conservation efforts and large amounts of research are being done to help the Iberian lynx, it seems almost inevitable that this poor animal will die out. If it does, it will be the first feline species to go extinct in 10,000 years. Who knew? Tigers and lions always come to mind as the poster boys of feline conservation, but there are other less well known species in dire need of conservation efforts. Hopefully with more thoughtfulness (how about not introducing foreign diseases into ecosystems) and breeding programs, we can save the Iberian lynx.

Cover image By Konrads Bilderwerkstatt – der Luchs …, CC BY 2.0