what you didn’t know about the brush-eared forest cat

Freiburg. Humans have always known how to give their animal neighbors cute names. So the bear became the good-natured Master Petz, the fox the cunning Reineke, the wolf the evil Isegrim. But one animal is missing in this parade of local mythical creatures. A rarely seen loner that has roamed the forests of Europe for thousands of years: the lynx.

“There are no horror stories, no fables, and no well-known films about the lynx,” says Marco Heurich, Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Biology at the University of Freiburg. While the wolf heats things up, the lynx is popular with a large part of the population. Nevertheless, it was exterminated in Germany more than a hundred years ago. What had he done, this forest dweller with the distinctive brush ear?

Cunning Pets: Is the Lynx the Wolf of Cats?

The wolf is usually after large prey animals, which do not pose a challenge for them – especially as hunters in groups. Several thousand pets are killed in Germany every year. The lynx, on the other hand, is a hermit and usually attacks deer with its own weight of 17 to 22 kilos. Only when it presents itself is he not choosy.

“Lynx kill pets only in places where forest grazing is practiced,” says Heurich. In Norway, for example, or on the Swiss alpine pasture. “In the spring, the livestock are driven into the forest, where they remain unattended for many months.” Then the lynx sometimes eats a sheep or a goat.

Why did the lynx disappear from German forests?

“In the past, grazing in the woods was also common here,” says the lynx expert. And that was at a time when a large part of the wild population in Germany had been pushed back through hunting and clearing. “In the 19th century in Bavaria, a shot deer was sometimes carted from place to place so that the children could see what such an animal actually looked like,” explains Heurich.

The lynx population has also decreased due to the decline in prey. And the remaining specimens were hunted so as not to have to share the little game with them. So the big cat disappeared from German forests – for the time being.

Alone in the open: That’s how the lynx lives

The lynx is the fourth largest land carnivore native to Europe – after the brown bear, the wolf and the Persian leopard, which is found in Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia. A female lynx roams a territory of at least 10,000 hectares, an area slightly larger than the island of Sylt. It usually gets two young from May to June. The groups don’t get bigger. The males live alone.

As unpopular as lynxes became among hunters and farmers, as much as they were missing from fairy tales and fables, cats began a very special career elsewhere at the same time: in science. “In the early modern period, the lynx was admired for its keen gaze that penetrated nature,” explains Heurich.

”Animals are not guilty”

After a she-bear is said to have killed a jogger in Italy, the right way to deal with wild animals is discussed: kill or tolerate? In the second part of our series “Wild Germany” we deal with the question of why the debate about “problem animals” is often so emotional.

A keen eye: the lynx as the heraldic animal of science

So he became the heraldic animal of a scientific world view. Galileo Galilei gave himself the nickname “the lynx”. And the first European society for the promotion of natural sciences still bears it in the title: “Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei”, the “National Academy of Lynxes”.

It was founded in Rome in 1603. Two centuries later, in Faust II, Goethe praises the lynx’s “eye ray”, while Friedrich Schiller in “Kabale und Liebe” complains that “women” have “lynx eyes” for “women’s weaknesses”.

A cool look: the powerful eyes of the lynx made it a symbol of science even in Galileo's time.

A cool look: the powerful eyes of the lynx made it a symbol of science even in Galileo’s time.

The gradual return of the “lynxes”

But the most concise representation of the relationship between man and lynx is probably a contemporary rhyme: “Hares, foxes, badgers, lynxes / I often shoot with my rifle,” says a collection of German folk songs from 1855. The riddle of why the plural for Fuchs is “foxes”, but the plural for lynx is “lynxes”, apparently only later.

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In the meantime, the rifle shots of the past have died away. And the lynx returns. Since the first resettlement in the Bavarian Forest in 1970, around 130 adult lynx have lived in Germany, according to figures from the Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz Deutschland (BUND). “The lynx population is concentrated in the Bohemian Forest in the border area between Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic, the Palatinate Forest and, since 2000, also in the Harz Mountains,” says Professor Heurich.

We saw many poached or poisoned lynx, some were strangled.

Marco Heurich

Professor of wildlife ecology and conservation biology at the University of Freiburg

Poached and poisoned: who kills Germany’s lynxes?

The lynx expert has been researching the predator for decades, examining its population and supporting resettlement projects. He had to learn that not everyone is happy about the return of the lynx: around 10 to 15 percent of the animals would die for unknown reasons. A case of poaching in central Europe?

“We saw many poached or poisoned lynxes, some were strangled,” Heurich recalls. Even chopped off paws were placed in front of the wildlife camera. “Possibly a competitive situation between hunters and lynx.” The lynx is not threatened globally. In Germany it is.

Lack of space in the Harz: This is how the habitats of the lynx are being restricted

The lynx is only left alone in the Harz Mountains, says the wildlife expert. There, in turn, the cats suffer from a lack of space. “The connection between habitats is often interrupted by cars and agricultural areas.” That is one of the biggest challenges in dealing with lynxes anyway, and not just in the Harz Mountains.

Heurich tries to answer three big questions with his research: How does the Central European lynx population have to be managed so that it can survive in the long term without suffering from a lack of genetic diversity? What do lynxes need to feel good? And last but not least: “How can we combine road traffic and the lynx population?”

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Belarus: Lynx Research and Political Adversities

Heurich has been researching these questions for decades, developing models together with the Eurolynx research network to forecast population growth. He also investigated the occurrence of lynxes beyond the Bavarian borders. It was not uncommon for him and his team to get caught up in the turmoil of political events.

“We studied wild animal populations in Belarus,” he recalls. Then a research colleague took part in the demonstrations against Alexander Lukashenko. The result: long imprisonment.

Ukraine: How is the lynx doing in Chernobyl?

The team tracked down the big cats not only in Belarus, but also in Ukraine. “We were in Chernobyl just before the Russian army marched in there,” Heurich recalls. Today one of the most outstanding nature reserves in Europe, where the lynx are also doing well. Their wildlife cameras are still installed there. That will remain so for the time being. Because of the mines.

Post-apocalyptic: Almost forty years after the Chernobyl reactor catastrophe, the radiation exposure is still immense - the lynxes don't seem to suffer from it, as wildlife researcher Marco Heurich found on site.

Post-apocalyptic: Almost forty years after the Chernobyl reactor catastrophe, the radiation exposure is still immense – the lynxes don’t seem to suffer from it, as wildlife researcher Marco Heurich found on site.

Why does the lynx actually have these brush ears?

The lynx still poses many mysteries. One of them is the brush-shaped fur on his ears. Is it for noise amplification? Are the white spots on the back of the ears intended to signal the offspring to follow their mother? There was a lot of speculation, says Heurich. But perhaps, the researcher thinks, it’s just an “arabesque” of evolution.

Incidentally, Heurich saw his first lynx in the wild on the way to a conference – a conference on the subject of lynxes. A whole bus full of lynx experts was on the road in the Bavarian Forest when the big cat appeared on the side of the road. Heurich recalls that one got out and took shaky photos with trembling hands. The lynx put up with it. Then he trotted on. And disappeared.

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