Massachusetts might be best known for its urban areas and historical sites, but locals and visitors with a passion for nature know that there’s plenty of wild space in Massachusetts as well. Beautiful forests found throughout the state are home to a diverse array of plant and animal species. If you’re a cat lover, you might head to Western Massachusetts in hopes of seeing a wild cat as well.
In the past, Massachusetts was home to three species of native cat—the bobcat, the lynx, and the mountain lion or cougar. Although you now have to go further afield to find cougars and lynxes, you can still find wild bobcats in Massachusetts, the state’s last wild feline.
The Bobcat: Massachusetts’ Only Wild Species
Bobcats are small wildcats with reddish-brown fur and small black spots. They are usually between two and three times the size of domestic cats, so it can be difficult to tell them apart at a distance. One of the most noticeable characteristics of a bobcat is its short tail—it is squarish and fluffy, and the “bobbed” appearance is what gave this cat species its name. They also have tufts of fur on their ears. Although bobcats primarily live in rural and wild areas of Western Massachusetts, they have been known to encroach on urban and suburban areas as well, especially during the winters.
The Lynx: From Resident to Neighbor
Although the bobcat is the only species currently known in Massachusetts, less than a century ago, you could hope to see its rarer and smaller cousin, the lynx. These cats are between a bobcat and a domestic cat in size and usually have shaggy, silvery fur with darker splotches or speckles, large, fluffy paws, and tufted ears. In the summer, that shaggy fur is replaced by a reddish-brown coat of short fur. Like bobcats, they have tufted ears and short tails, although their tails are black tipped.
Lynxes are less adaptable than bobcats, however, and the species is now considered extinct in Massachusetts. Although you can’t find a lynx here, it hasn’t gone far—in fact, there are still small populations in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine. Despite this, its shy nature means that even experienced campers might go their whole lives without seeing a lynx.
The Cougar: From Terror to Cryptid
A third species of cat, the cougar, was once found in Massachusetts—this one much larger and more dangerous. Today, cougars are only found west of the Rockies except for a few isolated territories, but they once spread from coast to coast, including Maine. These cats can reach three feet tall at the shoulders, stretch more than six feet from nose to tail, and weigh up to 220 pounds.
However, cougars were often hunted because of the worries about attacks on humans and livestock and because their furs and skins were valuable trophies. By 1900, cougars were rare in New England and most of the Eastern US. Despite this, there are persistent rumors of cougar sightings in Massachusetts and surrounding states. Whether these sightings are pure imagination, lone wanderers far from their home territory, or a lost population is up for debate.
Massachusetts’ wild spaces are teeming with wildlife, but you have to be especially lucky to see a wild cat. Massachusetts’ bobcats are mostly nocturnal and reclusive, but they are still there. They fill a vital role in our native ecosystems, helping wild Massachusetts stay a beautiful, thriving place to visit.
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