British Columbia

Bobcat or lynx? Not even the experts are certain

Bobcats and lynxes look confusingly similar, and telling them apart is baffling even the experts, who are concerned that misclassifications could lead to conservation problems.

Misclassification can lead to challenges with conservation decisions

One of the images the experts had trouble with: 16 said bobcat, nine said lynx, and two said unknown. (Scott MacDonald)

Bobcats and lynxes look confusingly similar, and telling them apart is baffling even the experts, who are concerned that misclassifications could lead to conservation problems. 

Researchers at UBC Okanagan solicited images of the two cat species from people across British Columbia and received more than 4,000 photos back. They closely analyzed 300 of them to see how identifiable the differences are.

"We ourselves didn't know what was in the picture — it was just a picture — and we asked 27 experts to look," said Karen Hodges, a professor of conservation ecology.

Bobcats and lynxes are close relatives, both part of the same genus. The visible differences are very subtle, Hodges said.

"It's an ear tuft here, it's a tail difference there, a little bit of a slope of the back,"  she told Shelley Joyce, the host of CBC's Daybreak Kamloops.

One of the biggest clues lies in the feet. Lynxes, which are more commonly found in northern areas, tend to have bigger feet that help them walk across the snow more easily.

Experts agreed that this animal is a bobcat, based on subtle differences in its ears and tail. (James Gagnon)

No easy distinction

Hodges said she was surprised at how difficult it was to reach a final decision on which animal was in each photo.

"Unfortunately, we found a lot of people having trouble. Experts disagreed with each other  — they sometimes disagreed with themselves," she said.

"We used the same images again in a second trial and everybody flipped on some photos."

For the general public, not being able to tell the difference doesn't really matter.

Members of the public submitted their wildlife photography and experts had to figure out which species was pictured. (Paul Morgan)

But when it comes to science, misclassification can negatively impact management and conservation decisions.

"If it's really a bobcat in the picture and you call it a lynx, you might be more optimistic about how many lynx you have in that region," she said.

"If the picture is really a lynx and you call it a bobcat, you might be missing that here is a place that we need to be sure to do protection and management."

Hodges has focused much of her research on finding better ways to survey and sample wildlife so more accurate conservation decisions can be made.

"Be careful when you have species like lynx and bobcats that are hard to tell apart," she advised.

"Just be really cautious of what are the consequences if I'm wrong, and be a bit more honest when you're not certain what the species identification is."

With files from Daybreak Kamloops