Have you ever been in the backcountry and run across an interesting animal track that you wish you could identify? With some instruction, a few careful observations and maybe a couple of measurements you can likely identify what animal left the track in question and gain some insight about wildlife in the area you are visiting.
- Look for tracks in wet and sandy places like stream beds, beaches, or sand dunes. Snow also is a great place to find tracks.
- Good quality impressions make it much easier to decipher tracks.
- Look at gait (an animals manner of walking) clues when you can. An animals gait can help you narrow down the range of possibilities.
- Try to pick out identifying characteristics (how many toes, are there claw impressions, etc.)
- A flashlight held at an oblique angle can help bring out details in a track.
- Size can often be a defining feature.
- Take along a notepad to sketch tracks and relevant observations/measurements.
- Animals like bears, skunk, beaver, opossum, badger, raccoon, weasel and otters have five toes on both front and rear feet.
- Members of both the Felidae (cat) and Canidae (dog) family have four toes on the front and rear feet.
- Claws are typically visible on prints from members of the Canidae family (wolves, coyotes, foxes, dogs, etc.).
- Claws are typically not visible on prints from members of the Felidae family (mountain lion, bobcats, lynx, house cats, etc.) due to their retractable claws.
- Rodents such as mice, squirrels, prairie dogs, marmots, muskrat, chipmunks and porcupines have four toes on the front and five toes on their hind feet.
- Deer, reindeer, elk, antelope, mountain goat, bighorn sheep, wild boar and moose have two toes.
- Raccoon prints have long toes and resemble tiny human hands/feet.
- Opossum prints have the front fingers spread very widely and rear print has a distinctive thumb-like toe.
- Beaver have large webbed hind foot prints.
- To differentiate black bear tracks from brown bear tracks:
- #1 find the lowest point of the outside (largest) toe
- #2 find the highest point on the front edge of the palm pad
- #3 draw a line through the two points and extend across the track. If more than half of the smallest toe is above the line, the print is from a brown bear. If more than half is below the line, the print is from a black bear.
- Bird tracks can be classified as follows:
- Anisodactyl tracks/ perching birds: 3 toes pointing forward and one long toe pointing backward. (eagles, ravens, hawks, doves, vultures, herons, etc.)
- Game bird/ ground birds: 3 toes pointing forward with short/absent toe pointing backward. (turkey, quail, pheasant, ptarmigan, partridge, coots, cranes, grouse, etc.)
- Palmate tracks/ water birds: 3 webbed toes (ducks, geese, gulls, terns, etc)
- Totipalmate tracks/ ocean birds: 4 webbed toes (pelicans, gannets, boobies, cormorants, etc.)
- Zygodactyl tracks: 2 toes pointing forward & 2 toes pointing backward (woodpeckers, roadrunners, parrots, owls, osprey, etc.)
click image for larger view
(please note tracks are not to scale)
Here are a few tracks that you can use to test your track identification skills (scroll down for the answers):
Some great resources for more tracking info:
- Track identification quiz: http://boyslife.org/quizzes/6662/animal-track-identification-quiz/
- Alaska’s wildlife tracks: https://www.adfg.alaska.gov/static/education/educators/pdfs/wild_wonders_issue2.pdf
- Michigan track ID sheets: http://www.hikingmichigan.com/PDFinfo/ForestStreamAnimalTracks.pdf
- Animal track photo library: http://www.naturetracking.com//
- How to save animal tracks as plaster casts: http://education.usgs.gov/kids/assets/tracks.pdf
- Animal tracking cards: https://outdooraction.princeton.edu/sites/default/files/files/articles/trackcard_0.pdf
- Winter tracking: http://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/administration_pdf/tracks1.pdf
#1 mountain lion
#2 black bear
#4 brown bear