The dynamic love life of the Iberian lynx

It has to be said, Iberian lynx courtship is far from an example of ideal society. I arrived at the ICNB centre in Portugal well into the breeding season, the couples were all paired up and the hormones were running high. So, as Alex Rowell did previously, I took up the role as a ‘video vigilante’ which involved 24 hour CCTV surveillance monitoring of the behaviour of the individual lynx, including the whole process of their courtship, which proved to be quite an interesting tale.

Pairing up

Being the most endangered cat species in the world, with just over 300 left in the wild, there is little room for romance – the pairing is mostly down to genetics.

With numbers dwindling to critical levels there is a real need to maintain genetic diversity to reduce the effects of inbreeding. So somewhere far beyond the fences the couples were determined mainly by their genetic compatibility to help save the species.

The honeymoon phase

When I first arrived, one of the key aspects of our work as video vigilantes was to observe and record the interactions between each pair to determine how the relationship was developing. Being solitary animals, lynx can be pretty feisty, so it was important to observe whether this newly formed relationship would lead to a blossoming romance or just end in a cat fight.

In the lynx world, a favoured way of getting to know each other is interacting through ‘cabeçadas’, where they literally bang their heads together. Naturally, this can go either way.

If they have hit it off, then it appears it is best to get straight to the point. She shows her new suitor her genitals, and he is permitted to have a sniff. Interactions like these continue, and the relationship develops. The individual behaviour can then change accordingly; both cats may become more active and possibly stop eating. He starts to follow her everywhere and observes her intensely.

This is it. The signs we’ve been waiting for. The female has come into heat.

Down to business

From then on the male will generally become very persistent. He is entranced with the female, watching her every move, staring at her while she sleeps, and continuously pacing in circles around her… waiting for that opportune moment.

Once that moment has arrived they will mate every 2-3 hours for 2-3 days, each copulation lasting for around 2-3 minutes. There is no room for privacy when the survival of the species is at stake, therefore our job was to observe and determine the quality of each of these copulations. Luckily the lynx are blissfully unaware of this, as being observed and judged by a group of mostly female Homo sapiens is unlikely to boost morale.

Something that has become universally apparent across species is that some males just cannot get it right. One particular male began well, the interactions were positive and the female came into heat. He went for the copulation. He grabbed her neck, aligned his body… and then proceeded to mate with her back. Not the way to get a female pregnant. Unfortunately, despite 37 attempts (way above the average), his technique did not improve. After one particularly bad attempt, the female simply turned to look at her partner, before deciding to bang her head against a tree. That’s frustration for you.

Family planning

Fortunately most of the males got it right and, as time went on, it became clear that some of the females were pregnant.

From here onwards watching the pregnant females took utmost priority. It was such an exciting time to be at the centre, you could feel the anticipation and excitement rising every day as we drew closer and closer to the due date. Watching for the signs of pre-labour became a priority – signs such as not eating, burying food and increased activity.

I was watching one of the females the day before her due date. She seemed uncomfortable and more active than usual. Then, whilst she was patrolling her territory, she suddenly paused and squatted. Her eyes narrowed. My heart rate rose, my palms went clammy. I called the keeper through from the office, and as he arrived we got to watch her defecate. She was constipated.

Despite feeling like a fool for getting so excited about some poo, tenesmus is actually another common sign of pre-labour.

The next generation

Unfortunately I had to leave the centre during this very exciting time, but a day later I received a phone call; “Sarah! We have cubs!”

I can’t even describe the feeling those words gave me.

So there we have it – the future of this amazing species.

Video courtesy of: ICNB

The big picture

Naturally the captive breeding centres alone cannot guarantee a future for the Iberian lynx. The other key aspect for their conservation is habitat protection and restoration, which involves partnerships between the government, local NGOs (for example, Liga para a Protecção da Natureza in Portugal) and international organisations such as Fauna & Flora International (FFI).

One of the main causes for the decline of the Iberian lynx in the wild is a lack of food, the downside of being fussy eaters. They feed specifically on rabbits, which have declined dramatically due to disease and some degree of habitat loss; therefore in addition to protecting habitat the main focus of field work is to boost rabbit populations in potential sites for reintroducing the lynx.

However, despite all the efforts with the captive breeding of lynx, habitat protection and the reintroduction of rabbits, there will need to be a real shift in people’s attitudes to reduce the threat of shooting, trapping, road kills and other human-related threats. Only then will the lynx be able to roam across Portugal once more.

One of my colleagues was asked where she worked when she took her car to the local garage. “I work with the lynx,” she said. The mechanic simply laughed and replied:

“The lynx? The lynx is a myth!”

Although the road ahead is long with many challenges to overcome, one day I really hope that the lynx will no longer be considered a mythical creature in Portugal, but a reality.

Main photo credit: The Iberian Lynx Ex-Situ Conservation Program

Want to know more? Take a look at the other blogs in this series: Lynx lineage lies with good breeding by Alex Rowell and A record-breaking season at the Iberian lynx breeding centre by Maike Demski and Tom Smith.