Tracking lynx through the wilderness

A head and shoulders profile of a tawny-coloured lynx with a white chin and tuft of black fur visible at top of one pointed ear, against a grey blurry background.

Tracking lynx through the wilderness

Trent University’s Dennis Murray pairs the movements of bobcat, snowshoe hare, lynx and coyote with genetic data to study how these iconic Canadian animals respond to environmental hazards of the present, and how they might fare in the future
November 29, 2015

“This is going to sound pretty lame,” says Dennis Murray when asked how he feels about the animals he studies. “I try not to think about their future too much because it does bring up emotions. It’s demoralizing.”

Murray’s funk creeps in after he has explained the grim future predicted for some of Canada’s most iconic mammals: bobcat, snowshoe hare, lynx and coyote.

Murray says the cumulative effects of climate change and habitat loss could be sending these species into a downward spiral; They may already be circling the drain.

Murray, a terrestrial ecologist at Trent University, studies how certain animals (and sometimes entire populations) respond to environmental hazards of the present and the future. His scientific mission is to find genetic signals that reveal what may happen as these animals attempt to respond to a rapidly changing environment. Murray, in other words, is a back-to-the-future forensic wildlife scientist.

READ: Trent Grad Students Conduct Snowshoe Hare Research in Yukon

During the field season, Murray and his students are armed with tag-and-track gear funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) — about ten sophisticated radio collars they attach to the scruffs of lynx in places like Washington State, for example, where these wildcats are rapidly being edged out by invasive species such as bobcat and coyotes. The collars beam a signal to satellites which ricochet the data to Murray’s desktop, informing him of the exact location of a lynx at any given moment. The data he collects compliments genetic information he and his team extract from blood samples taken when they first collar the creatures. The complete picture — genes and behaviour — will give Murray a sense of just how dire the situation is for lynx.

“We’re not predicting the extinction of the lynx entirely,” says Murray. “But they probably can’t adapt fast enough in marginal or deteriorating boreal environments.” It is in these environments that Murray predicts the strongest selective pressures will occur, changing these animals in ways that may not be visible now but are likely being coded in their genes.

Over time, subtle changes in DNA can lead to novel adaptations that help species survive or even thrive in completely different environments. In the case of the lynx it may be a smaller body size, a different coat colour or a taste for red squirrel instead of snowshoe hare — their preferred snack — that gives future generations the flexibility to expand into new environments such as deciduous forest. But alterations at the genetic level can be a gamble particularly if they do not happen quickly enough in response to a changing environment. It could be snake eyes for lynx in Canada.

So Murray is on a mission to prevent that fate from coming to pass. He will analyze genetic samples from lynx for a signal — perhaps the first murmurs of change or trouble — that then become proof of their internal response to a rapidly changing environment. The picture that emerges will give policy makers a clearer idea of the outlook for the Canadian lynx.

This story was originally published in March 2014.