Track Identification

This photo tells many stories in tracks. Before one can decipher all these stories, however, one must work on the building blocks. First, one should learn to identify animals by their tracks, starting by distinguishing the major families of mammals and then studying the clues to each species in the family. Second you will want to work on gaits. Third, you will want to look for other types of sign. Fouth, you will want to learn everything you can about the natural history of the animal. Over time you will learn to integrate all these components to unravel the stories you encounter in the field.

Key to mammal families

Influence of tracking substrate

Overview of gaits

Variability in nature

Other animal sign

Learning resources

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Key to Mammal Families

Each member of a mammal family tends to have a similar track pattern distinguished by the pattern of toes, structure of the heel pad, and other characteristics. The first step in track identification is to identify the family.

To narrow down the families, first determine which major group of patterns your track belongs to:

Four Toes

Four Front, Five Hind

Five Toes

Two Toes (hoofed)

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Four Toes

Track Characteristics

Family Claws Asymmetrical Heel pad Largest foot
Canines Yes No One leading lobe Front
Felines No Yes Two leading lobes Front
Lagomorphs Yes Yes Long track Hind

The presence of claws is an obvious clue to the canines but beware that claws do not show in every track on some substrates. A more subtle clue is asymmetry, the left and right sides of canine tracks are nearly mirror images (symmetry) while feline tracks appear askew and have one toe clearly longer than the others like your own hand (asymmetry). The leading edge of a feline heel pad is usually lobed, a prominent feature in the bobcat and cougar examples below. The large hind feet of lagomorphs and bounding track pattern should be self-evident.



Red Fox    a) hind and front    b) note heel bar

Coyote    a) front and hind    b) note oval shape

Wolf    a) hind and front


House cat    a) front and hind    b) hind over front

Bobcat    a) track    b) snow track

Cougar    a) front and hind paws    b) track


Brush rabbit    a) claws in sand

Snowshoe hare    a) snow track    b) toes showing (barely)

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Five Toes

Track Characteristics

Family Asymmetrical Heel Size Unique feature
Mustilids (weasels) Yes Complex Small-Medium Bounding gait
Bears Yes Simple Large Like human foot
Raccons/Opossums Yes Simple Medium Like human hand
Shrews No Complex Small Like small rodents

Pay particular attention to the complexity of heel pads in this group. Weasels have a number of pads arranged in an arc. Even when these are fused, as in the badger below, you can still see the parts. You can feel the lobing with your fingers in a track. Most rodents have a similar complex of small heel pads arranged differently than weasels. Raccoons and opossums have long digits so their tracks look much like a human hand. Raccoon digits are slightly bulbous. The opposing thumb of the opossum is unmistakable. Bears have simple heel pads and are, of course, much larger than the rest of the group.



Long-tailed Weasel    a) hind foot

Badger    a) front paw    b) hind paw    c) hind over front track

Mink    a) 4 feet in 2 by 2 bound

Marten    a) track    b) bounding gait in snow    c) compare to weasel

River otter    a) front and hind    b) hind over front


Black bear    a) front and hind    b) hind in snow

Grizzly    a) compare toe alignment to black bear


Raccoon    a) front and hind

Opossum    a) front paw    b) hind paw, note opposing thumb    c) track

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Four Front and Five Hind

Track Characteristics

Family Asymmetrical Heel Size
Rodents Yes Complex Small-medium

As a rule, rodents have 4 front toes and 5 hind toes. There are a couple exceptions (namely beaver, nutria, mountain beaver) with five front toes, though the fifth toe may not always show. The complex heel pad (several pads if various arrangements) is usually an important clue for rodents, though porcupines are oddballs. The aquatic species (muskrat, beaver, nutria) have noticeable webbing between the toes.


Douglas Squirrel    a) paws    b) mud    c) snow

Woodrat    a) hind foot    b) front foot    c) track

Muskrat    a) front foot    b) hind foot    c) track

Porcupine    a) front paw    b) hind paw    c) hind track

Beaver    a) front and hind    b) hind over front

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Two Toes (Hooves)

Track Characteristics

Species Pointed Inside taper Wall prominent General shape
Mule Deer Yes No No Heart shape
Elk Somewhat Slight Yes Rounded heart
Bison No No Yes Square or round
Pronghorn Yes Yes No Pinched
Mt Goat Somewhat Yes No Parallel bars

The two-toed ungulates superficially all look very similar and overlap considerably in size. For example, I will show you later that even though elk are clearly much larger on average than mule deer, there is sill much overlap in the size. However, attention to a few characteristics unique to hooves will help narrow the field.

Elk, for example, have a distinct rim around the edge of each clout (toe) known as the wall. The wall shows clearly in tracks and may be all that appears with a hard substrate. The small pad at the back of the clout gives way to the depressed subunguinus. This gives a distinctive hump in the track compared to deer where the pad covers most of the clout and leaves a flat bottomed track. Bison also have a prominent wall but the clout is very blunt, giving a squared off or round appearance. The pad extends further up the inside of the clout compared to elk.

Deer and elk have pointed toes that tend to nearly touch on firm ground. In contrast, the taper on the inside of the clouts for goats and pronghorn give the track a slighly spread look even when not splayed. See Halfpenny's books for more detail on clues for distinguishing ungulates.


Mule Deer    a) front

Elk    a) front hoof    b) track emphasizing wall    c) 3 tracks

Bison    a) front track

Mt Goat    a) hoof    b) track

Pronghorn    a) front hoof    b) front track

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Influence of Substrate

The substrate where tracks are laid influences the shape and distinctiveness of the track. Learn to look pick out the distinctive features of a track in different substrates. Some examples are:


Damp, fine sand records good detail. The disturbed sand around the track usually begins to dry first, making tracks easier to see. As the sand continues to dry, detail is lost. By the time the sand has dried completely, tracks have become very ambiguous.

    Red fox, disturbed sand drying first

    Coyote in dry sand

Soft mud

Most animals splay their toes when in soft mud.

    Coyote, front toes splayed

Hard surface

On a hard surface, tracks may still register but only partially.

    Red fox, claws only

    Brush rabbit, claws only

    Cougar, cast on hard ground

Dirt transfer

Walking from loose dirt or mud onto a hard surface can leave distinguishable tracks.

    Red fox, walking from loose dirt onto hard mud


Everything that moves on the snow surface leaves a track. The difficulty is that even a couple inchs of fresh snow can blur detail. Subsequent snow, rain, or sun can further blur, distort, or enlarge the track. Follow the trail to get the best prints, study the gait, and look for other sign.

    Bobcat, deep snow

    Marten, sun melt enlarged track


Where there is no bare ground to register tracks, you may need to look at how the animal has disturbed the vegetation. Here a black bear has left a distinctive trail shown by the flagging, matting, and tearing of broadleaf plants. There is even some dirt transfer onto the leaves.

    Black bear print

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Variablility in Nature

Most guide books give average track and gait measurements for each species. You can only use these as a relative guide, however. There is considerable variation in size within a species and overlap between similar species. Age and gender are two important determinants of size.

Comparison of Deer and Elk

In the figure below I plot the results of a little study comparing mule deer and elk tracks. Without going into detail about the study, let me use this to illustrate these two important lessons about variability.

Everyone who has seen an elk knows that they are on average much bigger than mule deer yet note that nearly one third of my elk sample (4 out of 13) overlapped with deer. Keep in mind that every animal was small once. I conducted the study during the fall so the smallest elk tracks were probably first year calves. The larger deer were probably bucks.

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Other Sign

Good, clear tracks are usually the exception rather than the rule. The track evidence is often fragmentary. Fortunately animals leave many different types of sign. Some animals leave lots of sign but rarely any tracks. Thus a good tracker uses all available clues to piece together the story. Here are a few examples:

Tree Damage

    Black bear spring feeding on inner bark

    Mountain beaver winter feeding

    Brush rabbit winter feeding


    Brush rabbit feeding

    Grizzly splitting log for grubs


    Porcupine scat and bark chips

    Black bear with crab apple and animal protein


    Chipmunk, small and round

    Mountain beaver, large and clustered


    Mountain beaver



    Beaver scent mound

    Coyote "post office"


    Pika feeding path

    Grizzly traditional trail

Paul Rezendes is the master of sign tracking. His book Tracking and the Art of Seeing is the best guide to sign tracking. The classic Peterson guide by Murie is another source.

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Overview of Gaits

Here is a brief visual overview of the basic gait patterns you are likely to encounter. You will need to supplement this with live instruction and a good text (in particular see the books by James Halfpenny).

Diagonal Stride


In a diagonal stride, their are alternating left and right tracks--just like our own tracks except that most animals have four rather than two feet. The hind foot usually comes down directly on top of the track left by the front foot. This is called direct register. The diagonal stride is typical of all canines, felines, and ungulates.

    Badger in a walk

One variation is the amble (fast walk) where the hind foot oversteps the front foot. The amble is often seen with the cat family.

    Coyote in an amble.


As an animal moves faster, it may break into a trot. The trot looks the same as a walk except stretched out. Canines spend a lot of time trotting.

    Red fox in a trot.

A variation is the side trot where the hind track appears to the side of the front track reflecting a turn of the head.

    Red fox in a side trot.

    Wolf in a side trot, looking left, right, then left again.


As an animal picks up speed, the hind feet start to overstep the front feet in preparation for the next push off. In a lope (slow gallop), the hind feet alternate with the front feet (F H F H). In a full gallop, the two hind tracks completely overstep the front (F F H H).

    Coyote in lope

    Dog in full gallop

Bounding Stride

The rabbits and most rodents travel in bounds rather than walk. All four feet leave the ground. Typically the front feet of the tree dwellers tend to be parallel while the land dwellers tend to offset the front feet.

    Douglas squirrel (tree dweller) bound

    Snowshoe hare (ground dweller) bound

The weasel family has a unique 2 x 2 bounding stride. The right and left feet are offset, forming a diagonal to the direction of travel.

    Pine marten in snow

    Mink in sand

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Tracking Resources

Tracking and wildlife guides

Definitions for common tracking terms

Links to other internet sites

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