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Surrogate Ambassador Species: The Lynx as a Case Study

Here at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC), we are at the forefront of educating people about native Alaskan game species–the only living institution like it in Alaska and the world, for that matter.  Likewise, the Alaska SeaLife Center is the only living institution in the world dedicated to conservation, research and education of regional marine life. As we...

Canada Lynx (Copyright John Hyde/National Geographic Society)

Here at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC), we are at the forefront of educating people about native Alaskan game species–the only living institution like it in Alaska and the world, for that matter.  Likewise, the Alaska SeaLife Center is the only living institution in the world dedicated to conservation, research and education of regional marine life.

As we prepare to welcome back our two female Canadian  (Canada) lynx to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, I am reminded of the privilege that small or specialized zoological facilities like ours and the SeaLife Center are afforded.  We do focus on and contribute to the conservation of endangered species native to Alaska. However, this does not preclude us from raising awareness of more obscure species that are not neccesarily in our possession or part of our respective Master Plans.

This may include the exhibition of sister taxa or at least closely related species to those that are much more endangered, but found elsewhere in the world. In this context I refer to these species as surrogate ambassador species.

I hope that other institutions continue to take advantage of surrogate ambassador species that may not be as imperiled, but serve as appropriate surrogate ambassadors for related taxa. 

For example, many metropolitan zoos, oceanariums (marine parks), and aquariums hold and exhibit California sea lions.  This common species can serve to educate the public about the much more endangered Steller sea lion–a species on exhibit and part of a research program at the Alaska SeaLife Center. 

Similarly, many institutions in the lower 48 exhibit the plains bison–the more common of the two subspecies of American bison.  We hope that conservation education initiatives targeted at the plains bison serve to engage patrons and raise awareness of the wood bison–the northern subspecies we are preparing to reintroduce into wild lands of the US (Interior Alaska). Wood bison have been absent from Alaska since their extirpation here in the state over a century ago.

Case Study: Iberian Lynx

When it comes to obscure megafauna—many are classified as critically endangered. In some, but not all instances there is  little available information about the biology of the species in the wild and certainly less may be known about their management in captivity.

I thought I would take a moment to introduce the lynx as an example. These medium-sized felids include the common and fairly wide ranging bobcat and the critically endangered Iberian lynx

In total there are four extant or living species of lynx and three subspecies of Canadian lynx– the species found throughout Alaska and Canada and northern parts of the contiguous lower 48.

The bobcat and the Canadian lynx are the smallest of the lynx species and sometimes confused for one and other in areas where they overlap in range. 

The Eurasian lynx—the largest of these wildcats—like the Canada lynx typically inhabits forested regions of northern latitudes.  Eurasian or European lynxes are also known as the Northern lynx, but they can be found throughout parts of South Asia. 

The bobcat does not occur in Alaska, but all 12 of the bobcat subspecies can be found in southern Canada, most of the lower 48 and Mexico. Unlike the Canadian or Eurasian lynx the bobcat is not nearly as dependent on forested habitat to survive. The bobcat can be found in deserts, wetlands, and areas diverse in topography and elevation.  Like the Canadian lynx which co-evolved with its main prey base—the snowshoe hare—the bobcat is highly dependent on the cyclical availability of its prey (i.e., rabbits and hare).

(stock photo, NGS)

The Iberian lynx is not only the most endangered species of lynx, it is the most endangered cat in the world and the only large carnivore endemic to Europe.  Native to the Iberian Peninsula in Southern Europe, the Iberian lynx overlaps in range with the Eurasian lynx and was once classified as a subspecies of the Eurasian species. 

There are less than a handful of Iberian lynx in zoos in Europe, but a successful breeding program exists for a consortium of breeding centers in Spain and the vicinity.

The Canadian lynx is more adept at walking on snow than the typically smaller bobcat.  It has to be well adapted to chasing prey over snow whether in forested habitat or on open tundra.   The largest subspecies of bobcat may outsize the lynx, but lynx are still formidable predators—typically reaching twice the size of a house cat and capable of taking down caribou calves.

As common as we think the Canada lynx is up here in Alaska, I can’t think of many who have seen one. Our Director of Operations, Tom Yeager, mentioned that he has lived here for 38 years and has never seen one.  Can you imagine how many people have seen an Iberian lynx in the wild or in captivity. There may be less than 150 left in the wild.

The Canadian lynx and the bobcat and even the Eurasian (Northern) lynx are fairly common in zoological facilities. They all are great candidates to serve as surrogate ambassador species for the Iberian lynx.  Hopefully, more exhibits featuring the more common lynx species will draw attention to the plight of their close relative–perhaps the felid species nearest extinction.

We hope that when you come to visit our Canadian lynx at the AWCC that you keep in mind that although Canadian lynx have been successfully reintroduced to places like Colorado, and continue to thrive in Alaska, their close cousins in Europe are on the verge of extinction.  We will do our best to remind you.

Lynx Reintroduction Video (NGS)

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Jordan Carlton Schaul
With training in wildlife ecology, conservation medicine and comparative psychology, Dr. Schaul's contributions to Nat Geo Voices have covered a range of environmental and social topics. He draws particular attention to the plight of imperiled species highlighting issues at the juncture or nexus of sorta situ wildlife conservation and applied animal welfare. Sorta situ conservation practices are comprised of scientific management and stewardship of animal populations ex situ (in captivity / 'in human care') and in situ (free-ranging / 'in nature'). He also has a background in behavior management and training of companion animals and captive wildlife, as well as conservation marketing and digital publicity. Jordan has shared interviews with colleagues and public figures, as well as editorial news content. In addition, he has posted narratives describing his own work, which include the following examples: • Restoration of wood bison to the Interior of Alaska while (While Animal Curator at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and courtesy professor at the University of Alaska) • Rehabilitation of orphaned sloth bears exploited for tourists in South Asia (While executive consultant 'in-residence' at the Agra Bear Rescue Center managed by Wildlife SOS) • Censusing small wild cat (e.g. ocelot and margay) populations in the montane cloud forests of Costa Rica for popular publications with 'The Cat Whisperer' Mieshelle Nagelschneider • Evaluating the impact of ecotourism on marine mammal population stability and welfare off the coast of Mexico's Sea of Cortez (With Boston University's marine science program) Jordan was a director on boards of non-profit wildlife conservation organizations serving nations in Africa, North and South America and Southeast Asia. He is also a consultant to a human-wildlife conflict mitigation organization in the Pacific Northwest. Following animal curatorships in Alaska and California, he served as a charter board member of a zoo advocacy and outreach organization and later as its executive director. Jordan was a member of the Communication and Education Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (CEC-IUCN) and the Bear Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (BSG-SSC-IUCN). He has served on the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society and in service to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA Bear TAG). In addition he was an ex officio member of council of the International Association for Bear Research and Management. Contact Email: