The Iberian Lynx Is Doomed — Maybe

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The world’s most endangered cat is not the lion or cheetah or tiger; it’s the Iberian lynx. Already at risk for a number of reasons I’ll get into below, a new study from Nature Climate Change predicts that the lynx could be extinct by 2060, driven off the planet by anthropogenic climate change.

As its name suggests, the Iberian lynx belongs on the Spanish-Portuguese peninsula, where it exists in a few isolated places in southwestern Spain and perhaps Portugal (though no one really knows). The IUCN estimates the lynx population at a mere 84 to 143 adult cats; recent counts suggest there may be as many as 250 of these kitties. Even the high number is a pretty small population — thus, the classification as Critically Endangered.

The lynx’s habitat has shrunk from 15,700 square miles in the 1950s to just 460 square miles, estimated in 2005. Like its North American counterpart, the Iberian lynx depends on rabbit for sustenance, but the cats’ bunny meal, the European rabbit, has gone through a major decline because of disease, hunting, and habitat loss. The lynx have also suffered from people trapping and poaching them, and hitting them with cars. (Generally cars and wild cats do not mix well.)

The good news for the lynx is that they have a lot of fans and conservation efforts have been well funded. There have been captive breeding programs, work towards restoring their bunny prey, and other efforts to make the world more friendly to the Iberian lynx, all in the hope that the cat population can grow larger, or at least not die out.

The problem, say researchers in the new study, is that none of these plans account for climate change. When they created a computer model of the lynx and rabbit populations that included the expected alterations to temperature and precipitation, they discovered that the lynx would die out within the next 50 years.

“Our models show that the anticipated climate change will lead to a rapid and dramatic decline of the Iberian lynx and probably eradicate the species within 50 years, in spite of the present-day conservation efforts. The only two populations currently present will not be able to spread out or adapt to the changes in time,” coauthor Miguel Ara├║jo, an ecologist at the University of Copenhagen, said in a statement.

All hope is not lost yet, though. If policymakers incorporate climate change into their plans for the lynx, the cats can survive, the scientists say. If climate change were considered in the planning of reintroduction efforts, those efforts could result in there being as many as 900 Iberian lynx by 2090.

The establishment of wildlife corridors along climate pathways might also help. The research team cautions, however, that the immediate nature of the threat, high costs of the corridor creation, and the fact that translocating lynx is technically feasible means that it’s probably easier to just move the cats rather than try to get them to move on their own through a corridor.

“The risk of extinction faced by Iberian lynx within the next 50 years is high,” the researchers write. But with good planning, extinction of the lynx might still be avoided.

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Images Credit: Hector Garrido, CSIC Andalusia Audiovisual Bank, via EurekAlert