Distribution patterns and habitat combinations inhabited by lynx in Belarus

With the plan in mind to write a book about the lynx in Belarus, we first of all aimed to investigate aspects of the species’ population ecology which were insufficiently studied across its range. At the same time, we wanted to present the main regional characters of lynx ecology in the main types of habitat combinations related to soil, climate and relief: diet and distribution patterns.

We consider only three main types of habitat combinations, hereafter called environments, which are relevant for lynxes in Belarus. All three environments are forested landscapes. In Belarus lynxes avoid large openings without, or with limited woody cover. We assume that such a preference for forest biotopes in lynxes has its origins in the strong interference with wolves. On open terrain, lynxes are vulnerable to attacks of wolf packs, whereas in forested terrain, lynxes can easily escape from wolves by climbing in trees, or they can use trees to their advantage during a fight with a wolf. The advantage lynxes have in forests even allows adult lynxes to kill adult wolves that are walking alone.

The first environment which may be inhabited by a local lynx population, is mixed forest that consists of coniferous (spruce, pine) and small-leaved deciduous trees (mostly aspen, birch spp. and alder spp.) on richer soils (containing a high amount of clay) or poorer (sandy) soils. This near-boreal type of forest is widely spread in the northern part, and in most of the central part of Belarus. In this environment, ecologically poor habitats as eolic sand dune massifs with homogenous pine stands stand out from the neighbouring habitats. They are usually less than 400 km² in size; so, these habitats are not vast enough to support a specific, rarefied local lynx population that could be independent of the surrounding richer habitats. These poor habitats are only rarely inhabited by lynxes; only in places of capercaillie concentrations (overwintering places, leks and nesting areas). Paazierre Forest is our study area representing this environment.

The second environment which may be inhabited by a local lynx population, is similar to the first one, but is ecologically richer and has a more nemoral character. Just like in the first environment there are both richer and poorer soils. Besides small leaved deciduous and coniferous trees, the forests also contain broad-leaved deciduous trees (lime, oak, maple, ash), resulting in a higher biomass of seed crop and a more diverse forest floor. These features and milder winter conditions result in higher habitat carrying capacity for lynxes with a richer food base and higher survival chances during winter, particularly for subadults. This more nemoral type of forest is widely spread in a part of central Belarus (particularly central west) and in a part of southern Belarus (northwards of the Prypiats’ valley). Again, as in the first type,  extremely poor habitats for lynxes such as  sand dune massifs with homogenous pine stands are usually less than 400 km² in size: not vast enough to support a local lynx population independent of the surrounding richer habitats.  The Naliboki Forest (particularly the central, western, central-southern and central-western parts) is our study area representing this environment.

A local lynx population can be defined as a territory-neighboring group of lynxes of minimally 12-15 individuals, in which there are at least three sexually mature females. Such a territory-neighboring group of lynxes is more or less stable during the mating season. Because lynxes are a polygamous species, when there are less than 12-15 lynxes, adult males tend to spread widely during mating season, in search of mates. The next years, when there are no, or only few adult males, breeding females tend to spread far away as well. Thus, such a territory-neighboring group of lynxes gradually disappears. In the case of a minimal local population in the first and second environments, lynxes live in proximity of each other. At the same time, other areas with very similar habitat carrying capacity can be unpopulated by lynxes, creating a patchwork in the spatial structure of the whole unsaturated lynx population.

The third distinctive type of environment which may be inhabited by a local lynx population in Belarus, is situated in the Paliessie region, south of the Prypiats’ valley. Extremely poor habitats, such as pine stands on sandy soils or bogs,  predominate over the whole area, other habitats such as deciduous forest and grassy marshland occur as small spots. This forest massif south of the Prypiats’ valley is populated by lynxes, but with a low density due to the low habitat carrying capacity. The ecologically rich Prypiats’ valley is mostly unpopulated by lynxes because of the large and long-lasting spring flood. Results from several research expeditions undertaken to this area indicate that lynxes are not able to populate this area with a density higher than two individuals per 100 km² because of the low food base (actual and potential). Perhaps, this indicates another pattern of distribution. A patchy distribution with individuals living in close proximity (as described above for the other environments relevant for lynxes) seems impossible in this continuous, almost barren terrain, where lynxes need to roam widely to supply in their food demands.

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