The Almost-Missing Lynx

By Bergman, Charles | Natural History, October 1998 | Go to article overview
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The Almost-Missing Lynx

Bergman, Charles, Natural History

Spain's Donana National Park shelters one of the world's most endangered cats.

For the past thirteen years, Spanish field zoologist Francisco Palomares has been studying the lynx in Donana National Park, a reserve of Mediterranean forests, scrub, and wetlands near Spain's Atlantic coast. Using radiotelemetry, he has been tracking the daily movements of about ten individuals since 1992. His is the most comprehensive study of the Iberian lynx, the area's top predator, since his countryman Miguel Delibes's groundbreaking research almost three decades ago.

"The Iberian lynx," Palomares says, "is one of the most endangered wildcats in the world-its continued existence is much more precarious than the tiger's." Found only on the Iberian Peninsula, this lynx's total population is down to about five or six hundred, or half of what it was only six years ago. "The prospect is bastante mala," Palomares sighs. "Pretty bad."

Following the signals from his radio antenna, he locates Gloria, a radio-collared female hiding about fifty feet from where we stand. This year she has had kittens, so we cautiously approach the clump of bushes to peek at the new family. From below the taraje-a kind of tamarisk tree with scalelike foliage-Gloria utters a throaty and menacing growl. Soon she slinks out from the cover and exits behind the tree through tall, dry grass. One kitten bounds ahead of her. Gloria slowly pads along behind, her white rump flashing in the low autumn sun. Her short, erect tail looks cropped, like that of a bobcat. A quick leap and she is gone.

Following Gloria with telemetry, we find her beneath a nearby bush, where she is nursing her two kittens. After a moment, she emerges, keeping a watchful eye on us and on the cavorting youngsters. Her reddish fur, spotted with black, glows like pounded copper in the October afternoon sunlight. A full ruff ornaments her cheeks and chin like Victorian muttonchops. Tufts of fur on her pointed earsan earmark, as it were, of lynx-wave in the evening wind. As she rests in the grass, her young romp around and over her, giving vent to their playful exuberance.

The lynx once roamed throughout Europe, from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean. Until recently, the Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus) was considered a subspecies of the Eurasian lynx (L. lynx). Recent studies of its morphology and paleontology, however, have established its unique status. Males are typically 24 to 44 percent smaller than their northern cousins. The Iberian lynx is stockier, and its fur is not as thick as that of the Eurasian variety, nor do its paws have quite the same resemblance to outsized snowshoes-probably an adaptation to southern Europe's warm climate. Recent genetic studies also confirm that the Iberian lynx is a distinct species. Even where the ranges of two types of lynx overlap, interbreeding was rare.

As recently as the last century, the Iberian lynx ranged throughout Spain and Portugal. It was routinely hunted, with as many as 300 skins a year arriving in Madrid from all parts of the peninsula. By the early twentieth century, the lynx had disappeared from northern Spain, and by the 1950s, it was confined to small populations in the central and southwestern parts of the country. The animals have now disappeared from 80 percent of the habitat they occupied in 1960 and are found in only nine isolated populations, only two of which are considered genetically viable.

Gloria lives in what might be called the epicenter for lynx in Spain-the heart of the Coto del Key, a small part of Donana that lies between the marshes and Mediterranean scrub and that was once the favorite hunting grounds of Spanish nobles and kings. Now totaling about 125,000 acres, Donana was set aside thirty years ago as a national park on the southern coast of Spain, just east of its border with Portugal. Protecting the estuary of the Guadalquivir River, Donana is an austere flatland of marshes and brush, of sandy soil and dry scrublands; its highest peaks are sand dunes along the Atlantic coast.

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