Tips for Reading Mammal Tracks
Make it a habit
Illustrations can help you distinguish tracks in the field, but reading mammal tracks is a skill that improves with practice. Tracks of the same animal can look different in dust, mud, sand, or snow. They will also vary with the animal’s size, age, weight, and movements.
If you want to try tracking as an activity, collect and make a habit of carrying the following gear when you go afield:
- Lightweight tape measure
- Field guide. A quick Internet search will yield the titles of several good track-and-sign field guides. Choose one that includes information on food scraps and other evidence of feeding, nests and burrows, scent marking, distinctive calls and sounds, and other helpful details.
- Smartphone or digital camera for recording tracks.
Take note of the following
- Pad marks
- Claw marks
- Marks made by fur or toe webbing
- Marks made by a dragging tail or belly
- Shape of pad marks
- Number of toes per foot
- Shapes made by hooves
Also note the average distance between the prints, and the overall pattern of the tracks. Are all the prints in a fairly straight line, or do the left and right footprints point distinctly away from an imaginary centerline? Does the animal appear to have walked, or waddled, or hopped from place to place?
Other signs to observe
Where do the tracks go? Do they lead to trees and stop, or do they lead to brush or rock piles? Do they lead in a straight path, or do they meander? Do they seem to follow an established trail made by other animals?
Distinctive cuttings and markings of plants. Rabbits clip vegetation in a neat, diagonal cut. Deer tear steams, leaving ragged tips. Beavers gnaw at the base of tree trunks, leaving piles of wood chips on the ground. Cats sharpen their claws on the bark of trees, and deer rub their antlers on small trees.
Signs of scat. Note the shape shape and apparent contents, such as bones, insect parts, or seeds. The placement of scat is helpful, too. Some animals, for example, defecate in prominent places — such as on top of rocks or logs or the middle of trails — in part to mark territories.
Remember: illustrations like those shown here are idealized. Dotted lines or gray areas in track illustrations indicate parts that often don’t show under normal conditions. When you see tracks in nature, they are often incomplete or partially wiped out.
- Weight: 8 to 14 pounds
- Foot hair may show in pad marks.
- Bear-like imprint
- Weight: 7 to 12 pounds
- Similar to summer coyote pups.
- Weight: 20 to 35 pounds
- Tracks scarcely ever well defined.
- Heart-shaped, toes pointed
- Toes spread and dew claws may show when bounding on mud or snow.
- 10 to 15 feet between bounds.
- Toes blunt
- Look for cuttings and scat at water's edge.
- Like small bare hands.
Gray squirrel tracks are similar to fox squirrel tracks, but smaller.
- As in mink, only four to five toes show, but about one-half the size of mink.
- Like cat but with toenails.
- Toenails and pads usually make combined print.
- Only four to five toes show.