There had been debate over whether to classify this species as Lynx rufus or Felis rufus as part of a wider issue regarding whether the four species of Lynx should be given their own genus, or be placed as a subgenus of Felis. The Lynx genus is now accepted, and the Bobcat is listed as Lynx rufus in modern taxonomic sources.
Twelve Bobcat subspecies are currently recognised:
- L. rufus rufus (Schreber) – eastern and midwestern United States
- L. rufus gigas (Bangs) – northern New York to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick
- L. rufus floridanus (Rafinesque) – southeastern United States and inland to the Mississippi valley, up to southwestern Missouri and southern Illinois
- L. rufus superiorensis (Peterson & Downing) – western Great Lakes area, including upper Michigan, Wisconsin, southern Ontario, and most of Minnesota
- L. rufus baileyi (Merriam) – southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico
- L. rufus californicus (Mearns) – California west of the Sierra Nevada
- L. rufus escuinipae (J. A. Allen) – central Mexico, with a northern extension along the west coast to southern Sonora
- L. rufus fasciatus (Rafinesque) – Oregon, Washington west of the Cascade Range, northwestern California, and southwestern British Columbia
- L. rufus oaxacensis (Goodwin) – Oaxaca
- L. rufus pallescens (Merriam) – northwestern United States and southern British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan
- L. rufus peninsularis (Thomas) – Baja California
- L. rufus texensis (Mearns) – western Louisiana, Texas, south central Oklahoma, and south into Tamaulipas, Nuevo León, and Coahuila
The subspecies division has been challenged, given a lack of clear geographic breaks in the Bobcat range and the minor differences between subspecies.
The Bobcat resembles other species of the Lynx genus but is on average the smallest of the four. Its coat is variable, though generally tan to grayish brown, with black streaks on the body and dark bars on the forelegs and tail. Its spotted patterning acts as camouflage. The ears are black-tipped and pointed, with short black tufts. There is generally an off-white color on the lips, chin, and underparts. Bobcats in the desert regions of the southwest have the lightest colored coats, while those in the northern, forested regions are darkest. Kittens are born well-furred and already have their spots. A few melanistic Bobcats have been sighted and captured in Florida. They appear black, but may actually still exhibit a spot pattern. The face appears wide due to ruffs of extended hair beneath the ears. The fur is brittle but quite long and dense. The nose of the Bobcat is pinkish-red, and it has a base color of gray or yellowish- or brownish-red on its face, sides, and back. Bobcat eyes are yellow with black pupils. The pupils are elongated vertically and will widen during nocturnal activity to maximize light reception. The cat has sharp hearing and vision, and a good sense of smell. It is an excellent climber, and will swim when it needs to, but will normally avoid water. The adult male Bobcat is 28 to 47 inches (70–120 cm) long, averaging 36 inches (90 cm); this includes a stubby 4 to 7 inch (10–18 cm) tail, which has a "bobbed" appearance and gives the species its name. An adult stands about 14 or 15 inches (36–38 cm) at the shoulders. Adult males usually range from 16 to 30 pounds (7–14 kg); females average about 20 pounds (9 kg). The Bobcat is muscular, and its hind legs are longer than its front legs, giving it a bobbing gait. At birth it weighs 0.6 to 0.75 pounds (280–340 g) and is about 10 inches (25 cm) in length. By its first year it will reach about 10 pounds (4.5 kg).
The Bobcat is crepuscular (generally most active at twilight and dawn). It keeps on the move from three hours before sunset until about midnight, and then again from before dawn until three hours after sunrise. Each night it will move from 2 to 7 miles (3–11 km) along its habitual route. This behavior may vary seasonally, as Bobcats become more diurnal during fall and winter. This is a response to the activity of their prey, which are more active during the day in colder months.
The Bobcat is able to go for long periods without food, but will eat heavily when prey is abundant. During lean periods, it will often prey on larger animals that it can kill and return to feed on later. The Bobcat hunts by stalking its prey and then ambushing it with a short chase or pounce. Its preference is for mammals about 1.5 to 12.5 pounds (0.7 to 5.7 kg). Its main prey varies by region. In the eastern United States it is cottontail rabbit species, and in the north it is the Snowshoe Hare. When these prey species exist together, as in New England, they are the primary food sources of the Bobcat. In the far south, the rabbits and hare are sometimes replaced by Cotton Rats as the primary food source. The Bobcat is an opportunistic predator that, unlike the more specialized Canadian Lynx, will readily vary its prey selection. The Bobcat hunts animals of different sizes, and will adjust its hunting techniques accordingly. With small animals, such as rodents, squirrels, birds, fish and insects, it will hunt in areas known to be abundant in prey, and will lie, crouch, or stand and wait for victims to wander close. It will then pounce, grabbing its prey with its sharp, retractable claws. For slightly larger animals, such as rabbits and hares, it will stalk from cover and wait until they come within 20 to 35 feet (6 to 10 m) before rushing in to attack. Less commonly it will feed on larger animals such as foxes, minks, skunks, small dogs and house cats.
Bobcats typically live to six or eight years of age, with a few reaching beyond ten. The longest they have been known to live is 16 years in the wild and 32 years in captivity. The female raises the young alone. One to six, but usually two to four, kittens are born in April or May, after roughly 60 to 70 days of gestation. There may sometimes be a second litter, with births as late as September. The female generally gives birth in some sort of enclosed space, usually a small cave or hollow log. The young open their eyes by the ninth or tenth day. They start exploring their surroundings at four weeks and are weaned at about two months. Within three to five months they begin to travel with their mother. They will be hunting by themselves by fall of their first year and usually disperse shortly thereafter.
The Bobcat is an exceptionally adaptable animal. It prefers woodlands—deciduous, coniferous, or mixed—but unlike the other Lynx species it does not depend exclusively on the deep forest. It ranges from the humid swamps of Florida to rugged mountain areas. It will make its home near agricultural areas, if rocky ledges, swamps, or forested tracts are present, its spotted coat serving as camouflage. The Bobcat's range does not seem to be limited by human populations, as long as it can still find a suitable habitat; only large, intensively cultivated tracts are unsuitable for the species.
The Bobcat has long been valued both for fur and sport; it has been hunted and trapped by humans, but has maintained a high population, even in the southern United States where it is extensively hunted. Indirectly, kittens are most vulnerable to hunting given their dependence on an adult female for the first few months of life. The 1970s and 1980s saw an unprecedented rise in price for Bobcat fur causing further interest in hunting, but by the early 1990s prices had dropped significantly. Regulated hunting still continues, with half of mortality of some populations being attributed to this cause. As a result, the rate of Bobcat deaths is skewed in winter, when hunting season is generally open.