Not so solitary: Lynx links surprise scientists

Scientists have observed female lynx in Kluane travelling together, eating from the same kills and even grooming each other, upending the perception that they are solitary animals.

Female lynx appear to cooperate, travel together and even groom each other

Female lynx in the Kluane have been seen cooperating together in different ways, upending the common perception that they are solitary animals. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Researchers in Yukon say they've observed female lynx doing something unexpected.

It appears they form partnerships and might even help each other.

Data-collecting collars in Kluane National Park and Reserve in southwest Yukon have shown the animals travelling close by, eating from the same kills and even grooming each other. 

The behaviour upends the perception of lynx as a solitary animal.

Dr. Dennis Murray, biology professor at Trent University and Canada Research Chair in Integrative Wildlife Conservation, says the finding comes from a long-term study of lynx in Kluane in which they've been collaborating with biologists with the Yukon government.

"This was an exciting surprise to us. We've been working on lynx in the Kluane area since the 1980s, and even though we haven't monitored them as intensively as we have just recently, we had no idea," said Murray.

It's not clear yet if the lynx pair up with family relations, such as mother and daughter. 

Further testing looking at the DNA of the animals will look into that question.

'Pair bonding'

Researchers in Kluane were initially looking at the population of snowshoe hares, which can vary widely. 

They wanted to discover how lynx adapt to these "dramatic" cycles of abundance and scarcity.

Murray says it's possible that female "pair bonding" could be a reaction to low numbers of hares. 

But it's not certain. 

"It may be that it's easier for them [to survive] by sharing food with their sister or their mother, or their grandmother," Murray said. 

It could also be a behaviour that was always common among lynx but was never documented, or that is new and in reaction to some other variable. 

Solitary animal

Murray says lynx are usually known to pair up only for breeding. A female will raise kittens for a year before they become independent. 

"We tend to think of them as mostly solitary," he said. 

He adds, of course, "we need to investigate this more deeply," to ensure the behaviour is truly cooperative.

Scientists also hope to find out how long these pairings, or lynx links, can last.

The study is being conducted as part of a larger project to document how lynx and other species in the boreal forest are responding to rapidly changing environments, including the effects of climate change.

It's one part of a much larger research project that has been monitoring the boreal ecosystem in the Kluane for more than 30 years. Murray said it's the longest running study of the boreal forest in Canada and perhaps the world.