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.
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:
|Family||Claws||Asymmetrical||Heel pad||Largest foot|
|Canines||Yes||No||One leading lobe||Front|
|Felines||No||Yes||Two leading lobes||Front|
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)Return to Key | Return to Menu | Return to Home Page
|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) trackReturn to Key | Return to Menu | Return to Home Page
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 frontReturn to Key | Return to Menu | Return to Home Page
|Species||Pointed||Inside taper||Wall prominent||General shape|
|Mule Deer||Yes||No||No||Heart shape|
|Bison||No||No||Yes||Square or round|
|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 trackReturn to Key | Return to Menu | Return to Home Page
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
Most animals splay their toes when in soft mud.
Coyote, front toes splayed
On a hard surface, tracks may still register but only partially.
Red fox, claws only
Brush rabbit, claws only
Cougar, cast on hard ground
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 printReturn to Menu | Return to Home Page
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.
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.
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:
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
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.Return to Menu | Return to Home Page
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).
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
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 sandReturn to Menu | Return to Home Page
Tracking and wildlife guides
Definitions for common tracking terms
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