The Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus), a native of Portugal and Spain, is the most endangered species of cat in the world. If it dies out, it will be the first feline extinction since the sabre-toothed cat 10,000 years ago. Recently, the future of one of the world’s rarest cats has improved, although it’s not good news for rabbits.
The Iberian lynx has distinctive, leopard-like spots with a coat that is often light grey or shades of brownish-gold. The coat is also noticeably shorter than in other lynxes, which are typically adapted to colder environments. The Iberian lynx has four sets of whiskers: two groups on the ears and two on the chin, which it uses to sense its prey. The tufts of hair on its ears help it to detect sources of sound and the edges of its feet are covered in long thick hair, which facilitates silent movement through snow.
The legend of the lynx’s sharp eyes was prevalent in ancient times. In his encyclopaedic Naturalis Historia (77-79 CE), the Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder called the lynx “the most clear sighted of all quadrupeds.” The Roman historian Plutarch embellished the legend by speaking of “the lynx, who can penetrate through trees and rocks with its sharp sight.” And the Greek physician Galen, ever the comparative anatomist, wrote, “We would seem absurdly weak in our powers of vision if we compared our sight to the acuity of the lynx or the eagle.”
Despite its exceptional vision, this rarest of cats is totally dependent on an animal many people consider a pest: the European rabbit. But it is now known that where rabbits share their range with the surviving populations of Iberian lynx, they, too, are in drastic decline. This is a problem for lynx conservationists: to save the lynx, they have to save the rabbit.
An early name for the Iberian Peninsula, Ispania, may be a derivation of the Punic Ispanihad, meaning “land of rabbits”. Roman coins struck in the region from the reign of Hadrian show a female figure with a wild rabbit at her feet. Rabbits evolved together with the Iberian lynx, the latter becoming a specialist predator adapted to this exclusive diet. The cat found itself competing with Spanish farmers partial to rabbit casserole who began to trap and shoot them. The lynx population plummeted, hitting an all time low of 100 at the turn of the century.
In 2001 a conservation project was launched to rescue the Iberian lynx from extinction. Called Life Lince, after the Spanish for lynx, it was headed by Miguel Ángel Simón, already renowned for the successful reintroduction of lammergeiers (bearded vultures) in Andalucia. The project began a successful captive-rearing programme with the aim of restoring the cats to their former habitat.
As a result, by the end of 2010 there were 253 lynx living in the wild, including 82 cubs and 66 females. The signs are encouraging and we can now hope that one day this most beautiful of cats will once again be a common sight in the woodlands and pastures of Iberia – as long as there are plenty of rabbits to go round.