Ecologist Dan Herrera sees a lot of animals on the camera traps he helps place throughout green spaces in Washington D.C. The wooded corridor surrounding the Potomac River in the city’s northwest, along which the C&O Canal and bike path runs, is particularly rich: Here he’s spotted coyotes, red foxes, beavers, and even flying squirrels.
But Herrera saw one surprising creature while reviewing photos collected by a camera located west of the Palisades neighborhood: a bobcat. The wild animal, sex unknown, passed through the area at 6:21 a.m. on November 9. (There’s a large backlog of photos that he’s now combing through.)
“It’s really exciting,” says Michael Cove, a researcher with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute who often works with Herrera. “I certainly wasn’t expecting to see a bobcat within D.C.” There have not been any verified sightings of the animal in the city in recent history.
“We have reports of urban bobcats out west, but as far as I’m aware, it’s a relatively new phenomenon to the East Coast,” Herrera says. “That’s something that’s fascinating, and hopefully this will spark some conversation about it.”
The photos were collected as part of the DC Cat Count, a program that aims to produce a population estimate of domestic and feral felines in the area. It’s jointly run Humane Rescue Alliance, a shelter in town where Herrera works, and by Cove’s employer.
Though Washington D.C. is right in the middle of historic bobcat habitat, the shy cats generally don’t enter highly urbanized areas. The only bobcat spotted in D.C. in the near past was a male named Ollie who escaped from the National Zoo in 2017. He was, however, re-captured shortly thereafter.
Bobcats (Lynx rufus) range throughout all lower 48 states, and are doing relatively well; they’ve even re-colonized some former land that they’d be extirpated from, such as in Iowa, says Christopher Kozakiewicz, who studies dispersal of the animals in southern California and beyond.
That being said, the wildcats need extensive, well-connected green spaces with healthy populations of small mammals to survive: mice, squirrels, and rabbits are prime prey species. They’re slightly less adaptable than animals commonly seen on the urban fringe like coyotes and foxes, which are omnivorous and thus have a broader diet, Cove says. (Related: Coyotes have expanded their range, and show no signs of stopping.)
The C&O, technically called the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, a national historic park run by the National Park Service, has been working on improving green spaces in the city for years. This area is home to forested riverine habitat, and the finding “speaks to the quality of green space that DC has to offer,” says Travis Gallo, an urban ecologist at nearby George Mason University, in Fairfax County, Virginia.
Coming from away
The nearest verified sighting of a bobcat before this discovery was about 25 miles west in Loudoun County, Virginia, Cove says, though it’s unclear if that animal was a resident. Certainly there are well-established, reproductive populations of bobcats elsewhere in Virginia, such as in Shenandoah National Park and George Washington National Forests, and in rural Maryland, Cove says.
The Potomac River serves as a perfect corridor for their travel to rural areas outside the city, including the Applachians, where they are well established.
Bobcats are nocturnal and wary; even when the wild cats are afoot, they’re rarely seen. “They are very shy and secretive and will actively avoid people,” Kozakiewicz says.
Likewise, they generally avoid people’s pets, says Julie Young, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture who studied the animals distribution and diet in the Dallas-Forth Worth area. The researchers found no evidence, in bobcat scat, that the predators were preying on cats or dogs.
Bobcats are doing well in Dallas, popping up in green spaces like golf courses and even utilizing highly built spaces like underpasses and even a Home Depot parking lot to get around, Young adds. (See photos of a bobcat family that formed an unlikely human friendship in Texas.)
This kind of behavior hasn’t been seen as much along the East Coast, where bobcats may be more wary, Herrera says.
The DC Cat Count will continue, perhaps providing more clues, and Gallo’s lab will also be putting out cameras in the D.C. area in the spring to look for animals like bobcats.
“So, we will be able to see if bobcats and other unique species are just passing through or if they are actually living and persisting in these green spaces.”