A record-breaking season at the Iberian lynx breeding centre

I had gone to bed after my night shift around 7 that morning. Sometime later the phone was ringing. I knew what that phone call meant: today was due date, and the first female was in labour.

Later that day I eagerly made my way to the video vigilante room. Everyone was there and as I looked over shoulders to get a glimpse I saw Biznaga was not in one of the birthing dens. I could see the nervous look on every person’s face. I found a small square of floor and waited with everyone else.

Every so often someone would call “contração” (contraction) and the video vigilante on shift would scribble in the note pad. After some time Biznaga slowly made her way into the box to everyone’s relief. “Contração” was called out more and more frequently. Time passed, and then suddenly Biznaga stood up, spun around and the first Iberian lynx cub of this season was catapulted into the world. Biznaga licked and cleaned her, and the little wet ball disappeared into her mother’s safe and warm fur.

Champagne is handed around and everyone celebrates the beginning of what is to become a very successful breeding season – although at that moment no one could have guessed just how record-breaking it was going to be.

A day later, Castañuela gave birth to not one, not two, not three, but four cubs. Although this happens in nature it is quite rare – it has occurred just twice since the breeding programme started in 2003.

Castañuela and her four cubs. Video courtesy of ICNB

Then, two short weeks later (and in a matter of three days), the last three pregnant females gave birth, and to everyone’s surprise each produced four cubs as well!

What are the odds? Not only are litters of four rare, but this has been the highest number of cubs born in any centre so far. In just two weeks, the population in Portugal had doubled.

Growing up

Over the next few months we watched each female’s unique mothering style develop – from Fresa’s laid back not-too-involved approach, to Flora and Castañuela’s helicopter-parenting.

We began to see traits from the mother and father in the cubs, and eagerly made guesses as to what variation of spots each one would have.

Feeding time for one of the centre’s hand-reared cubs. Video courtesy of ICNB

The cubs eventually started leaving the den and we got to watch them explore their world for the first time, getting more and more confident with each hour. Soon we began to see individual personalities emerge and little friendship bonds form within the sibling groups.

Some of them (to our horror) love to climb on anything that is high. Some only want to stick close to mum, while others leave her far behind and bolt off into all corners. We marvelled at Fruta’s cubs, who are better behaved than most human offspring, and laughed at others who love to destroy anything and everything with their teeth and claws.

Sibling rivalry

When the cubs reached six weeks we went on alert, and every minute we kept the cameras trained on the cubs.

At this age, lynx cubs have a period of sibling aggression. Studies are being done to shed light on what triggers this aggression and the reasons behind it, but for 24 hours the cubs are extremely hostile to one another and even towards the mother.

Without intervention (by the mother or staff), the cubs can end up with serious injuries. The attacks usually become much less aggressive after 12 hours, but last for at least a 24-hour period and have been observed for some time after that.

The centre’s mother lynxes did an amazing job taking care of their extraordinarily large litters and managed to control the fights without any human intervention. Some of the less fortunate litter-mates looked a little bruised for a day or two, but within hours of the last fight all were sleeping peacefully together again as if nothing had happened.

We watched in awe as our little miracle cubs grew and developed at an exceptional rate. They had their first taste of rabbit and began to make their first playful attempts at hunting. In no time, 18 blind, 100 gram new-borns had turned into true wild cats.

Cub at the breeding centre. Credit: ICNB.

Growing up quickly. Credit: ICNB.

Although they still have a long way to go and a lot to learn until independence, they are beginning to resemble miniature adults.

Reunited at last

Two days before we left we were fortunate enough to be able to watch as Biznaga was reunited with her cubs, Juromenha and Janes, who unfortunately had to be hand reared by the incredibly dedicated staff at the centre.

Having had contact through the fence for some weeks, the cubs were finally allowed into the same enclosure. Biznaga was caught a little by surprise as Juromenha darted through the gate, but soon she, Juromenha and the smaller, more timid Janes were chasing around and getting to know each other.

We have heard that the three of them are well and doing beautifully together. They are the perfect example of the success of this year’s breeding season. We hope it will continue so in the future.

Want to know more? Take a look at earlier blogs Lynx lineage lies with good breeding by Alex Rowell and The dynamic love life of the Iberian lynx by Sarah Havery.