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Canada lynx’s historic range points to a promising future

A new study led by Washington State University (WSU) has projected a promising future for the Canada lynx within the United States, which could potentially extend its habitat into regions previously thought to be unsuitable due to climate change. 

The scientists used a sophisticated model, validated by historical records, to predict the lynx’s past and future distributions. 

Canada lynx habitat range

The model indicates that as early as 1900, the lynx occupied a significantly larger range within the United States than the confined northern areas they are currently known to inhabit. 

The study suggests potential future habitats in Utah, central Idaho, and the Yellowstone National Park area, despite the ongoing threat of climate change.

“History matters even for wildlife. As part of the criteria for species recovery, we have to understand their historic distribution. Otherwise, how can we help recover a species, if we don’t know what we’re recovering to?” said lead author Dan Thornton, a wildlife ecologist WSU. 

Having a more precise picture of a species’ past can also help avoid an effect known as “shifting baseline syndrome” –  a gradual change in what scientists accept as normal for the environment, or in this case, a species’ habitat.

Mapping out the lynx’s past range 

By projecting back to 1900 and forward to 2050 and 2070, the researchers analyzed climatic and land use data to map out the lynx’s potential historic and future ranges

This projection was validated by analyzing records from museums and accounts from hunters and trappers, revealing a wider historic range of the lynx across various U.S. regions, thus contradicting previous assumptions that the species was confined to its current range.

Optimistic future for the lynx 

These findings point to a more optimistic future for the lynx, identifying regions unaffected by current climate projections as potential habitats. These areas, which fall within the lynx’s historically occupied territories, offer a beacon of hope for the species’ expansion and conservation. 

However, further research is needed to ascertain the viability of these regions in supporting lynx populations amidst changing climate conditions.

Historic ranges of other species 

Thornton notes the complexity of estimating historical ranges due to limited past data on species distributions. He advocates for innovative approaches to tackle this challenge. 

“Thinking about historic range is really important. It’s also quite difficult because we often have limited data on where species were in the past. But there are potential ways to go about addressing that, and we wanted to provide one possible approach in this paper.”

This novel methodology not only sheds light on the Canada lynx’s resilience and adaptability but also serves as a model for assessing the historic ranges of other species. By integrating historical records with modern scientific modeling, researchers can offer more informed strategies for the conservation of lynx and other threatened species, aiming for a future where wildlife thrives across expanded and restored habitats.

More about the Canada lynx

The Canada lynx, a medium-sized wildcat native to North America, is known for its distinct physical characteristics and habitat preferences. 


This elusive feline boasts a silvery-brown coat, tufted ears, and large, padded paws that act as natural snowshoes, enabling it to navigate the deep snow of its boreal forest habitat. 


The lynx’s diet is heavily reliant on snowshoe hares, with the abundance of this prey significantly influencing the lynx’s population cycles and distribution.


The Canada lynx’s thick fur and long legs are adaptations to its cold environment, stretching across Canada and into parts of the northern United States. Despite its wide range, the lynx is seldom seen by humans due to its solitary and secretive nature. It primarily hunts at night, relying on its acute hearing and eyesight to detect prey.


Reproduction occurs once a year, with litters of one to four kittens born in the spring. These kittens depend on their mother for food and protection for their first year, learning hunting skills that are crucial for their survival in the wild.


The conservation status of the Canada lynx varies regionally, with some populations considered stable and others at risk due to habitat loss, climate change, and human activities. Efforts to preserve its habitat are critical for the lynx’s future, highlighting the importance of understanding and mitigating the impacts of human encroachment on wildlife ecosystems.

The study is published in the journal Biological Conservation.


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