Bobcats: Living on the Urban Edge

Backyard bobcat santa monica mountains
Photo by Niki Yoblonski

Bobcats (Lynx rufus) are small, robust cats that inhabit much of North America, including all of the United States, most of Mexico and southern Canada. Bobcats inhabit a wide range of natural habitats as well as the fragmented habitat along the edges of human development. The possible abundance of food resources in these areas may be the reason for this type of behavior. Since bobcats are primarily nocturnal and crepuscular - hunting and moving at around sunset and at night - the best time to spot them is during the early morning and late evening hours.

 

The Hazards of Living on the Urban Edge
With an increased road network, bobcats face the danger of getting hit by vehicles while trying to move between patches of habitat. Also, as the distance between natural and urban areas decreases, the transmission of diseases from domesticated animals to wild animal populations may become a problem. In addition, exposure to rodenticide poisons appears to be a growing problem as homeowners try to control rodent populations, and inadvertently expose bobcats to the poison.

 
Bobcat map
A recent study documented significant genetic differentiation among bobcats in and around Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. Above, the 405 and 101 Freeways have fragmented local bobcats into three genetically distinct geographic populations.

Our Study
We have been continuously studying and radio-tracking bobcats in targeted areas since 1996, making it one of the longest bobcat studies ever. Prior to 2002, they had relatively high survival rates in the study area but that has been changing over the past 16 years.

As part of the study, biologists capture and sedate the bobcats, affix radio collars, record measurements and take blood and tissue samples for analysis. Researchers also se non-invasive techniques such as the use of remote cameras and scat surveys. Most of the 300+ bobcats in the study were captured in or near the communities of Thousand Oaks, Westlake Village and Agoura Hills.

Bobcats, like other predators, are territorial and need their space. Based on our long term study of local bobcats since 1996, males require about three square miles of space and females 1.5 square miles.

Especially in small populations, over time genetic differentiation can lead to reduced genetic diversity, which has also been documented in mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains. Of the more than 350 bobcats sampled from 1996-2012 for a study several years ago, the eastern population comprising the hillside communities east of the 405, including the Hollywood Hills and Griffith Park, had the lowest genetic diversity in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Bobcats live throughout the Simi Hills from Thousand Oaks to Calabasas and surrounding communities. The largest contiguous population is found west of the 405 Freeways, from Topanga to Point Mugu. Another distinct group inhabits the relatively small, highly urbanized stretch of the mountains east of the 405 that includes the Hollywood Hills and Griffith Park. The open space patches north of the 101 Freeway that comprise the Simi Hills and the Conejo Valley are home to the third genetically distinct group of bobcats.

 
Bobcat on rocks
Bobcat 332 was an approximately 3-year-old male that we had been following in the Simi Hills since 2015. He had severe mange, a skin disease caused by mites. Blood samples were sent to a lab and it was determined he also had rat poison present in his system.

National Park Service

The Disease Epidemic Impacting Urban Bobcats
In the spring of 2002, we began to witness a disease epidemic in urban bobcats, and their numbers decreased dramatically in the following months and years. Animals were dying with severe infections of notoedtric mange, a disease caused by microscopic mites in the skin, characterized by severe mite infestations over much of the upper body. In addition to having mange disease, all of these individuals tested positive for exposure to one or more of the anticoagulant chemicals commonly found in some types of rodenticides (rat poisons). Most of them had relatively high levels of the compounds.

Bobcats generally do not die directly from these poisons, but rather tend to ingest sub-lethal levels of the chemicals, which over time causes immune system dysfunction and makes them more susceptible to other diseases, such as mange. Further evidence of the impact of this mange disease epidemic has been seen in our scat surveys. Bobcat scat is counted and collected monthly along specific trails and fire roads.

 
Maps, Photos, & Videos
We have a collection of high-resolution photos of bobcats available for download at our
Flickr site.

All maps and photos are part of the public domain (no need to request permission prior to using, though attribution to "National Park Service" is encouraged).

 
Bobcat 329
B-329, a bobcat kitten. Photo taken on April 30, 2015.

National Park Service

Backyard Bobcats - Join Our Study!
You can help us learn about the secret lives of bobcats in your neighborhood by sharing photos of the ones that you see in your neighborhood or when you are on a hike. Through photos, we can learn about important areas for bobcats, and how they may interact with our presence and development in an area. We can also identify bobcats as individuals from their spot patterns and compare observations of them in residential areas to other areas. This information helps us understand about the benefits and risks to bobcats of living in close proximity to people.

Submissions will contribute to research conducted by the National Park Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, and other institutions. Contact Joanne Moriarty (joanne_moriarty@nps.gov) for more information.

 
Differences between cats
How Can You Identify a Bobcat?
Bobcats are members of the cat family (Felidae), the same family as lions, tigers and your house cat. Often mistaken for mountain lions in southern California, bobcats are much smaller. There’s a misconception that bobcats do not have tails! This scientific illustration shows the difference between a bobcat, a mountain lion and a domestic cat.

Bobcats can be identified by their fur, but this is the most variable part of their appearance. Some are very spotty, while others have virtually no spotting. They are reddish-brown above and whitish below, with black spots or streaks all throughout the coat. Another main identifying characteristic is the short, stubby tail which can measure about 9 inches in length. Large tufts of fur on the cheeks, termed a facial ruff, and tufts of hair on the ears are also characteristic.

In Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, bobcats weigh about 20 lbs, average about 30 inches in body length, and can stand almost 18 inches high.

Last updated: September 7, 2018

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