Missing lynx? Researchers hope to figure out why the feline's fossils are so rare in Yukon

The Yukon government has only two lynx specimens in its extensive fossil collection, and researchers want to figure out why they're so rare.

Yukon has plenty of mammoth and lion fossils — but where are the lynx?

A lynx at the Yukon Wildlife Preserve in Whitehorse. Lynx are common in Yukon, their fossils not so much. Researchers hope to figure out why. (Jake Paleczny)

Yukon government paleontologist Grant Zazula has seen and studied plenty of mammoth fossils, lion fossils and scimitar cat fossils — all of them found in Yukon where those animals don't exist anymore.

But he hasn't seen nearly as many lynx fossils, though the species has lived in the territory for thousands of years and still thrives there.

There are only two lynx fossils in the territorial government's collection. They were dug up several years ago near Dawson City. 

Zazula wants to figure out why fossils from this particular feline species are so rare in Yukon. He started by analyzing the two fossils on hand, and having them carbon-dated.

"We learned that one of our bones was over 50,000 years old and the other one is 8,000 years old. So that was kind of what got me really interested — because it really had a big gap, in terms of the time," Zazula said.

Yukon paleontologists have just 2 lynx fossils in their collection, one of them tens of thousands of years older than the other. (Government of Yukon)

Zazula has a theory that the species initially thrived after first crossing the Beringia land bridge into North America thousands of years ago, but then moved elsewhere during the last Ice Age.

"During the Ice Age, it was a really cold and dry place in the Yukon ... this treeless environment probably was not a place that animals like lynx could live very well," he said.

"I think what happened during those cold, dry times, I think the lynx just left. I think they went somewhere else. And then they came back after the Ice Age. And the only way I think we could test that is with genetics." 

Zazula is collaborating with a U.S.-based researcher to better understand how lynx ranged across North America over the millennia, and how the Canadian species is related to its southern cousin, the bobcat.

Julie Meachen of the University of Des Moines says along with the Yukon lynx fossils, they're going to analyze another lynx fossil she's dug up in Wyoming, and see what they can learn.

"We don't have a very good record of lynx in North America," Meachen said.

"There's gonna be a lot of cool information that we're gonna learn about these specimens."

'I think what happened during those cold, dry times, I think the lynx just left,' said Yukon paleontologist Grant Zazula. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Zazula hopes there will be value in learning more about how lynx survived the last Ice Age when many other species went extinct.

"As climate unfolds in the near future with us and things change on the landscape, these animals are going to have to figure out new ways to live. And the best way to figure out how that may happen is by looking at the past," Zazula said. 

With files from Dave White