A couple of motorists last weekend had the uncommon privilege of seeing not one but two Canada lynx working out some issues on an unpaved forest road in the heartland of Maine.

It's rare to spot a lynx at all, let alone a pair of them: the lanky wildcats tend to be elusive wherever they're found, including in this northernmost New England state, the vast, sparsely populated conifer backwoods of which make one of their most important strongholds in the contiguous US.

But in video posted by Sarah Verney, some windshield observers found themselves with front-row seats to a lynx face-off, right in the middle of the roadway near Kokadjo. It's a fascinating glimpse at lynx behaviour – and as good a sonic definition of the term "caterwauling" as you'll find.

Dr Daniel Harrison, a professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Maine who's done much research on lynx habitat ecology, suspects the scene represents a dispute over turf.

"The big animal on the left is obviously a pretty robust male," he said. "The other one, I can’t say for sure whether it’s a female or a smaller subordinate male, but this is certainly a territorial stare-down."

The noisy standoff without actual physical contact is typical of felids, Harrison noted. "Cats are so well-equipped that they kind of avoid violence at all costs," he said, "because when they do get in a fight somebody gets hurt."

The rather wacky noises the two lynx are issuing are "part of the intimidation", Harrison said, likely attempts by the cats to proclaim their relative dominance. "It's not unlike when you're sleeping at night and hear two tomcats outside," he explained.

A general lynx practice of mutual avoidance tends to minimise these sorts of aggressive run-ins. As in many carnivores, male lynx maintain larger home ranges than females: an average of 53.6 kilometres (21 square miles) compared to 25.7 kilometres (10 square miles), in one study from northern Maine. Territories of lynx of the same sex only minimally overlap, but the purview of a male lynx (a tom) is likely to encompass parts of the home range of one or more females.

"It's what we call intrasexual territoriality: males territorial against other males, females against other females, but males and females overlapping," Harrison said.

It's possible the smaller lynx in the Kokadjo video is a female: encounters between resident toms and females can be antagonistic outside of the breeding season. The other lynx might also be a young male in the process of looking for or establishing his own HQ. Lynx mate in late winter, and that's when male offspring tend to disperse from their mothers' territories.

"[A young male] could still be transient this time of year," said Harrison, "or it may have established residency near the edge of another male's territory, and in this case happened to bump into him."

Harrison also emphasised that the setting of this two-for-the-price-of-one lynx encounter isn't out of the ordinary. "Lynx use roads for travel corridors, so lynx encounter other lynx along roads," he explained. "The vast majority of lynx on roads we never see because they're in the woods before we notice them."

But when the cats are preoccupied with asserting territorial rights, they may be a bit more likely to ignore human bystanders. That may explain why more than a few people have managed to film similar lynx yowl-offs on backroads and trails. This one, also from Maine, may take the cake in the ridiculous-noises department:

Here again, the cats are definitely getting up into each others' faces, but avoiding an actual claws-out tussle.

That said, the ear-splitting but paws-off choreography alone doesn't always manage to settle the point, as this contest caught on camera in British Columbia (again, on a road) demonstrates:



Top header image: Jean-Pierre Bluteau/Flickr