Track Detectives – Background

Animals live secret lives all around us – yet their tracks and sign can be found everywhere, starting in our own backyards. Winter is a great time for tracking as snow makes a great surface for animal tracks to register, leaving imprints for us to study and interpret. Becoming a track detective is like learning to read; in fact, it is reading, but with a different set of symbols. Every set of tracks tells a story. When reading these stories, consider the place where the tracks are found, the track pattern left behind, and the shape and size of the animal’s foot print.

The place where you find tracks can be an important clue. A good track detective tries to think like an animal and consider where it might go to find food, water, and a place to take cover. What animals might live in and around the area where these tracks are found? The animals likely to pass through the playground are different from those that only leave trails deep in the forest. What animal might balance and walk on a fallen log? Tracks that tunnel under the snow, slip into a stream, or end at a tree trunk give important clues about the behaviors and abilities of the animals who made them. Look closely at the surrounding vegetation for browsed twigs, stripped cones, and other clues indicating food is being stored or eaten. Do any impressions indicate an animal rested or took cover nearby? Scat or animal droppings, urine, and markings are other signs that can help you determine whose home territory overlaps with yours.

There are four main track patterns made by animals as they move: a single line of tracks, paired tracks of the same size, paired tracks of different sizes, and groups of four tracks. The repeating design of prints in each pattern gives information about the body structure, build, and gait of the animal that made them. Occasionally tail drags and slides are part of a track pattern, providing additional clues about the track maker and its behavior. Animals can vary their track patterns, but each has a baseline gait, their most efficient and natural rhythm.

Animals whose baseline gait is a single line of tracks include the cat family, the dog family, and hoofed animals. Their bodies, from shoulder to rump, are about the same length as their legs. They walk or trot on their toes, moving the front foot on one side of their body followed by the hind foot on the opposite side, and leave a single (zigzag or straight) line of footprints. These are all prints of their hind feet, as their hind foot lands directly on top of where their front foot has been.

The baseline gait of the weasel family is paired tracks of the same size. They have long narrow bodies and short legs with five toes on each foot. Their movements mimic the opening and closing of a toy Slinky™. They start in a crouch and spring forward by pushing off with their back feet, fully extending their body in mid-air. Then they touch down, one front foot at a time. Both front feet lift up, and the back feet land in their place, ready to repeat the pattern. These paired prints are usually set on the diagonal.

Animals with heavy bodies and short legs leave paired tracks of different sizes as their baseline gait. Bear, porcupine, skunk, opossum, raccoon, beaver, and muskrat all move in this way. They walk slowly, on flat feet, moving both feet on one side of their body, one at a time. Their back legs are longer than their front legs and their hind foot often oversteps their front foot. Their track pattern shows smaller front and larger back footprints in pairs, either one in front of the other or side by side.

Animals whose baseline gait is a group of four tracks include members of the rodent family (mice, squirrels, chipmunk) and rabbits and hares. Their large hind feet are much longer than their front feet. They push off with their strong back legs and big back feet and land first on their smaller front feet. Their back feet swing outside and ahead of their front feet, ready to push off again. Their track consists of four footprints – their two larger back feet ahead of their smaller front feet.

Additional measurements can help distinguish between animals with similar patterns. Stride is the distance between two consecutive prints or between track sets and can vary greatly depending on the speed of the animal, in addition to its sex, age, and size. In slower gaits, tracks are closer together, while they get farther apart as the animal speeds up. A more reliable measurement is straddle, the width of an animal’s tracks, measured from the outside edges of two prints. This measurement varies only slightly and correlates with the animal’s body width.

The overall path each track pattern takes provides another valuable clue. Meandering, looping tracks often belong to domesticated animals. Fido knows a full dinner bowl awaits him at home, while Mr. Fox moves in a straighter, more direct path, conserving energy, for dinner is never guaranteed.

The best clue, but often the most difficult to find, is a perfect footprint or impression. Tracks come in all shapes and sizes, from the tiniest mouse, vole, and shrew prints to the finger-like paws of raccoon and opossum to the large tracks of bear and moose.

Counting the number of toes in each print can help with identification. Animals walking on two toes include deer, moose, and many domesticated hoofed animals like cows, goats, and pigs. Their hooves tend to be heart-shaped with the pointed end facing the direction of travel. In deep snow, two additional smaller impressions may register; these are the dewclaws, tiny remnants of former digits.

Cats and dogs both have four toes visible in their prints. A dog foot is more oval in shape and their nails are often visible in their prints. The toes are arranged in pairs, and an X can be drawn in the space between these toes. A cat’s footprint is rounder, and the toe pads are arranged asymmetrically around the heel pad. Cats have a leading toe, like our middle finger, and a little toe on the outside, like our little finger. This allows you tell whether you are studying a left or right cat footprint. No claws are visible in cat tracks for their claws are retractable, to keep them sharp for hunting.

Members of the weasel family, including ermine, mink, martin, fisher, and otter, all leave prints with five toes. As you follow these trails, be on the lookout for distinctive slides as they use their long bodies to slide downhill or across the ice.

Animals with five-toed tracks whose front paws are shaped differently from back paws include skunk, beaver, muskrat, bear, raccoon, opossum and porcupine. Some, including most rodents, don’t have the same number of toes on their front and back feet. Using all these clues along with size measurements can help identify the maker of each track.

While most wild animals stay out of sight when humans are around, they leave behind signs we can learn to read. Track detectives put together clues about place, pattern, and print to try to determine what creature went walking by. There are many stories waiting to be read in the tracks and sign all around us.

Suggested Reading

Elbroch, Mark. Mammal Tracks and Sign. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2003.

Levine, Lynn. Mammal Tracks and Scat. E. Dummerston, VT: Heartwood Press, 2000.

Morse, Sue. Wildlife Habitats. S. Burlington, VT: PawPrint and Mail, 2021.

Rezendes, Paul. Tracking and the Art of Seeing. 2nd edition. New York: Harper Collins, 1999.

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