Animal tracks appear in our daily lives often while riding on a chairlift, strolling on snowshoes or gliding on cross-country skis. Interpreting animal tracks is rewarding because we can enjoy the presence of wild animals, even when we don’t see them.
Interpreting tracks is like playing detective where we carefully interpret the clues left behind. The clues are animal signs, which include tracks, droppings, claw marks, chew marks, and scenting. These sign are tangible evidence that tells us the animals were here.
Each animal chooses the mode of propulsion that is most efficient for its body type. For instance, walking is a great mode for conserving energy. Without stopping to rest, many of us can walk much farther than we could run. Humans are a fine example of walkers: walking is our primary mode of travel while out on the trail. Why don’t we hop, trot, or skip instead? Because it takes less energy to walk to a destination. It comes down to efficiency.
Out in the wild where efficiency is essential, animals travel in three main modes: walking, hopping, and trotting. Examples of walkers include coyotes, bobcats, elk, deer, porcupines, and beavers. Steady alternating left, right, left, right, tells us it’s a walking gait. Remember this tip; take a series of three of the footprints in the walking track. The length of these three prints tells us the length of the animal from hip to shoulder; in other words, the length of the animal without the head and tail. Wow, this tells you a lot because we know the approximate length of a porcupine, a coyote or an elk. This three-print principal applies only to walkers.
Look at several individual footprints. Do you notice hoof prints or do the prints consist of feet with individual toes and pads? If you see two-toed hooves, look closely at the toes. Are they fat, rounded toes, in a robust print? Then it’s possibly an elk, a mountain goat, or a moose. Are the toes pointed, in a petite, dainty track? Then it’s probably a deer. Are the toes splayed outward? Then you may be looking at the track of a bighorn sheep.
If you see footprints with pads in a medium sized walker, coyote, bobcat, or mountain lion are all choices. You can tell coyote footprints by carefully looking for remnant claw marks in the front of the prints. Canines, such as coyotes and fox show claw marks with oblong footprints that are longer than they are wide. On the other hand, cats such as bobcats or mountain lions have retractile claws, so the claws rarely show. The shape of a cat’s foot is completely round, that is, they are as wide as they are long. Bobcat tracks are dainty. Mountain lions are heavy and their tracks are as large as a human fist. If you see curious prints that look similar to human hands and feet, it’s quite possibly a bear. Bears, like humans, walk heel-toe, heel-toe.
Hoppers include squirrels, snowshoe hares, cottontail rabbits, and mice. For these animals, it is simply more efficient to propel themselves by leaping forward, up and out of the snow, landing, and then jumping again. The width of the track tells us the width of the animal’s hips. We can all judge the relative distance across the hips when comparing a one-inch wide mouse, a three-inch wide squirrel, and a six-inch wide snowshoe hare.
Hopping tracks differ from walking tracks in that there are not alternating lefts and rights. Instead, the tracks appear in spaced groupings each containing two front and two rear footprints. The front feet appear in the rear of the grouping, because when a hopping animal is in motion, the front feet land first, are overstepped by the rears, and then it propels itself forward using its powerful hind legs. This observation helps us establish the animal’s direction of travel.
Trotters differ from walkers and hoppers. Left and right prints are not obvious, and the depressions in the snow appear in a line. In each depression there are a diagonal set of two footprints, another set of two, another set of two, etc. Red fox are trotters. Look for small dog-like feet. Pine marten tracks also look like a trot pattern but often go from tree to tree as they search for squirrels. When examining the tracks it is helpful if the animal slowed and walked for a few steps, because applying the three-print principal, we can tell the longer fox from a shorter pine marten.
Tracks from a weasel form a dumbbell pattern with a depression on each end connected by a drag mark. Short hop, long hop, alternating. Weasel tracks often disappear through a hole in the snow, where it goes to hunt mice down near ground level. Weasels vary greatly in size between males and females. Long-tailed weasels are larger than short-tailed. The relative size of the prints will tell you which weasel made them.
When making an interpretation, consider the weight of the animal making the track. Push your pole into the snow to estimate its weight by mimicking the depth of the track. Is it light, and barely sinks in snow, such as a mouse, a weasel, or a squirrel? Is it medium weight and floats on the crust level just below the fresh layer, such as a coyote, bobcat or porcupine. Or is it heavy, and breaks through all the layers to the ground, such as an elk, deer, or bear. Assessing the animal’s weight helps to narrow down the possible choices.
Look at the track in its entirety to give yourself the most information. For instance, a coyote may break into a trot for ten feet, but then return to its normal walking gait. A fox or pine marten may walk for a few steps giving away valuable information on the animal’s size. Also, often times your best interpretation may include more than one animal as a strong possibility. Keep your options open and glean more information as you continue to follow a track.
Try to encompass additional evidence such as habitat, elevation, and vegetation, when making your interpretation. For example, we are on a craggy precipice at 12,500 feet elevation, in winter, and see what first appear to be elk tracks. But we know elk don’t like to be that high in winter. Hoofed animal, high elevation, rocky terrain, winter, sparse vegetation… Mountain Goat.
Try to use deductive reasoning in your interpretation to help you narrow down the possibilities. A good place to start; is it a walker, a trotter, or a hopper? Is its weight light, medium, or heavy? What is it doing? Is it hunting? Is it foraging? If you ask questions first, you’ll probably arrive at the correct answer. Interpreting animal tracks can enrich all of our winter outings.