The Right Track
The ancient art of tracking helps you follow your wildlife dreams.
by Jonah Evans
From badgers and bobcats to flying squirrels and ringtails, Texas is home to a fascinating diversity of native fauna. Growing up on a ranch, I read about these creatures and wondered why I never saw them. Every ranch walk yielded only a few deer and jackrabbits. Perhaps, I thought, the books were wrong and these animals lived elsewhere in Texas.
As I grew older, I learned that most mammals are nocturnal, well camouflaged and wary of humans. It began to dawn on me that perhaps these elusive animals were giving me the slip.
This new reality that so many animals could be living undetected in my own backyard didn’t fully set in until I picked up my first field guide to animal tracks. I began to look more carefully at the ground for clues. There, I discovered a passageway into a hidden world.
The first tracks I found were of a raccoon. Once I learned to recognize the common hand-like impressions, I began finding them everywhere — especially around the chicken coop and the creek. As my tracking skills gradually grew, my walks became more interesting, and nature slowly began to reveal more of her secrets. Rather than watching deer bounding away in the distance, I could now find river otter, ringtail, bobcat, gray fox, coyote and even screech owl tracks, all near our quiet Hill Country home.
The earliest trackers
To our predecessors, whose lives depended upon their ability to hunt, animal tracking was a quintessential survival skill. Hunters without the ability to track were less likely to survive difficult times than those who could skillfully find their quarry. Researchers speculate that the need for our early ancestors to track animals may have, over hundreds or thousands of generations, had a significant impact on human evolution.
In a Journal of Psychology study, the authors found that subjects were able to recall animal tracks much easier than other objects.
“Results indicate that direct behavioral holdovers from the ancient world may exist in the cognitive realm,” they concluded.
Another researcher, Louis Liebenberg, goes a step further to suggest that the process of identifying tracks was fundamental to forming our ability to recognize symbols, and eventually resulted in our ability to use written language.
Humans, with comparatively weak abilities to hear and smell, are seemingly underequipped as predators. In contrast with other carnivorous mammals, however, we have large brains and good vision, a significant advantage that may have allowed us to succeed at tracking. We may even owe the development of these traits, at least in part, to the evolutionary pressure on our ancestors to be able to follow and find prey.
In today’s world, we no longer depend on our tracking skills for food; most of us probably haven’t thought much about animal tracks. Even hunters, armed with modern equipment, may have little practical need to learn tracking. But to those of us curious about nature and the animals around us, there are some big rewards waiting if you’re willing to take some time to learn.
As an enthusiastic young wildlife biologist, I had the opportunity to work a seasonal job in Wyoming following Canada lynx tracks in the snow. Our directive involved driving long routes through the wilderness on the back of snow machines and searching for lynx tracks — basically my version of a dream job. Once found, we would follow the trails, collect behavior data and bag feces to bring back to the lab for genetic analysis.
The snow afforded perfect tracking conditions, and I quickly learned how to recognize whether a lynx was hunting or just traveling through the area. The chase scenes were thrilling to piece together. With a bit of effort, we could find where the lynx sat in waiting and crept toward an unsuspecting snowshoe hare. We’d see where a wild chase ensued, with snow flying from fiercely kicking legs and feet, leading ultimately to the capture or escape of the hare. When the lynx caught its quarry, we’d often find white tufts of hair, drops of blood and the leftover remains after the lynx ate its fill.
Learning tracking is a challenging and rewarding pursuit. Just as learning to read begins with identifying individual letters, learning to track begins with identifying individual tracks.
Available resources are better than ever. A modern resurgence in tracking interest has led to the publication of comprehensive field guides to the tracks of North American mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects and other invertebrates that have pushed the boundaries of tracking knowledge. Some naturalist schools offer dedicated tracking classes, including a few in Texas.
The wealth of information can be a bit overwhelming to new trackers, so start slowly; learn the tracks of common species in your backyard. The next step is to learn to recognize the many variations of each animal’s track.
Tracking is a welcome and satisfying departure from the fast pace of our lives in this busy age of constant overstimulation. Trackers have to take time to notice subtle marks in the dust. Growing up on a family ranch, I was surrounded by nature, but it was my fascination with tracks that drew me to become a biologist.
To this day, I’m still thrilled to discover an interesting set of tracks. I think of tracks as confirmation that you are not alone. Someone, or something, has been here before.
When you spot a track, withhold judgment about what you see as you examine all the features of the track. Key features that aid in identification are often called “field marks” — looking for the right marks can greatly simplify the process. Here are a few of the most important field marks to consider when you encounter a track.
Size: How big is the track? Some field guides measure claws and others don’t. Be sure to check out which method your field guide uses before measuring.
Number of toes: Look closely when counting toes. Hind tracks often land on top of fronts, and the resulting superimposed track can look like it has several extra toes. Also, depending on the firmness of the soil, it isn’t uncommon for a toe to register very lightly or be missing altogether.
Claws: Are the claws large and blunt as in a digging animal (striped skunk or badger) or short and sharp as in climbing animals (squirrels and cats)? Animals with claws are capable of leaving tracks with no visible claw marks. The absence of claws in a track is a relatively unreliable clue.
Pad shape/size: The heel pad may be made up of one large pad or several smaller pads. Compare the size of the toes to the pad. Some animals have relatively small pads and others quite large.
Gait pattern: Different gaits leave different track patterns on the ground. Some animal tracks can be identified simply by their distinctive gait patterns. There are many different gaits: walks, trots, lopes, gallops, bounds, hops and several variations of each.
Front: 2.2-4.2" long
Hind: 2-4.2" long
Front and hind feet have four teardrop-shaped toes. Heel pad is large (about the size of all four toes) and has a double lobe at the top.
Gait: Primarily uses an overstep walk with the hind foot stepping beyond the front track. Uses a direct register walk in snow or on other deep or slippery surfaces such as sand or mud.
Similar species: Some dog tracks can look similar. Dogs tend to have much smaller heel pads (about the size of three toes). Dogs often show claws, but this isn’t always the case and can be misleading. Dog heel pads tend to be triangular and lack the double lobe at the top of the pad.
Front: 1.8-3" long
Front and hind tracks show four toes and a triangular heel pad.
Gait: Uses many gaits. Most common are an overstep walk and a side trot.
Similar species: Domestic dog tracks are very similar but can usually be recognized by larger and blunter claws, splayed toes, wider and shorter heel pad, rounder overall outline and blockier toes.
Fox and Gray Squirrel
Front: 0.8-1.2" long
Hind: 0.9-1.3" long
Like most rodents, squirrels show four finger-like toes in their front tracks and five in the hinds. They have small claws; the pad is composed of several smaller pads.
Gait: Squirrels bound. The front feet tend to land side by side. The hind tracks also land side by side and are usually just a few inches beyond the fronts.
Similar species: Rabbits have short, round, fur-covered toes and large claws.
Front: 0.9-2.6" long
Hind: 1.2-2.2" long
Front and hind feet have five finger-like toes. Toes on front feet are splayed widely. Toes on hind feet are close together, and all point in generally the same direction, except the large thumb.
Gait: Opossums walk and trot. In both gaits, the hind foot lands slightly behind or partially on top of the front track.
Similar species: Tracks are fairly unique. Raccoons are superficially similar.
Front: 1.5-3.2" long
Hind: 1.4-4.1" long
Both feet have five finger-like toes. The hind foot is slightly larger and less symmetrical than the front.
Gait: Raccoons use a unique 2x2 walk where the hind foot lands next to the opposite front track. This leaves a distinctive pattern of two tracks, side by side.
Similar species: Raccoon tracks are highly variable and can sometimes look like a bobcat track with four round toes and a large heel pad. The tracks can also look similar to river otter tracks.
Front: 0.6-1.5" long
Hind: 0.8-1.9" long
Front and hind tracks show five blocky toes and large, blocky heel pads. The claws on the front feet are very large.
Gait: Tends to overstep walk or lope.
Similar species: Badger tracks are larger; domestic cats have four toes.