You’ve just seen a wildcat leap out of view along the trail. Was it a mountain lion? Probably not. While mountain lion sightings do make the headlines, the chances of seeing a mountain lion are incredibly rare. Scientists estimate that there are fewer than 20 mountain lions in the entire Santa Ana Mountain Range, so you have most likely seen its smaller feline cousin, the bobcat. Bobcats (Lynx rufus) are the most abundant wildcat in the United States and have the greatest range of all native North American cats. This elusive animal can adapt to almost any habitat, and is found throughout the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks.
Also, bobcats were named for the appearance of their tail being cut, or “bobbed.” If you do see a wildcat, it will most likely be as it is running to hide from you, and you can easily tell the bobbed tail of a bobcat from the long tail of a mountain lion. Bobcats have dark brown spots and stripes visible on their coats, while mountain lions have solid, light-colored coats.
If you live in coastal Orange County, that cat is most certainly not a mountain lion. It has been decades since a mountain lion has been spotted in the coastal wilderness, most likely since mountain lions are territorial and need a very large range. The central Orange County wilderness connects with Cleveland National Forest and the Santa Ana Mountains, providing the space mountain lions need. On the other hand, bobcats are regularly spotted in coastal wilderness areas.
Bobcats usually feast on rabbits, birds, mice, and squirrels. They hunt by stealth, and attack prey with a devastating pounce that can reach up to 10 feet in length. They have an average life span of 10 to 12 years, but adults are sometimes killed by coyotes or mountain lions, often while competing for food. The kittens are vulnerable to many predators including owls and foxes. Since bobcats live in wildland areas that are near urban cities, they are also susceptible to disease, accidents, hunters and automobiles.
A bobcat will most likely hear you coming before you even see it, so you are more likely to see its tracks and scat left behind on trails. The bobcat track reflects a usual cat-shaped paw. There is one “leading” toe that sticks out further in front than the others, and the pad, or palm, is more flat-bottomed, M-shaped (“M” for meow) than the triangle-shape of a canine print. Usually claw marks are not present because bobcats, like all felines, can retract their claws when not in use. The bobcat scat, or feces, is usually tubular with blunt ends (like a tootsie roll) and can be up to 4 inches long. There could be some scrape marks near the scat to show the attempt of the bobcat to cover it, or other tracks that can help confirm which animal left the scat.
Bobcats play an important role in the ecosystem because they keep wild rodent populations to a manageable level. However, their sensitive nature makes them easily disturbed by humans. Staying on marked trails and participating in docent-led activities on protected land helps give the animal space. Please visit www.LetsGoOutside.org/Activities for information about upcoming programs or to register. You can also visit the OC Zoo to see rescued bobcats and mountain lions and see the differences for yourself. More info at www.ocparks.com/oczoo.