Making Sense of Animal Tracks
By Amber Rudeen, Senior Program Instructor
How many times have you been outside, noticed fresh footprints in the snow and wondered what animal left them? At Keystone Science School, we spend a lot of time teaching students about these footprints, also called tracks, and the patterns they follow. Track patterns fall into three main categories: leaper-hoppers, bounders, and waddlers. Knowing what kinds of animals fit into these categories can help you identify tracks in the snow more easily.
Some of the most common leaper-hoppers are squirrels, mice and snowshoe hares. Their track pattern is characterized by four prints grouped together with a space in between the next group of four prints. When these animals jump or hop, they place their hind feet ahead of their front feet. If the animal lives on the ground, its front feet will land on a diagonal, and if it lives in trees its feet will be placed side-by-side. Snowshoe hare tracks are one of the most easily identified track patterns because they have a very specific look — their feet are actually shaped like snowshoes, which helps them stay on top of deep snow in the winter.
Animals in the bounder category include animals with long bodies and short legs, such as weasels and river otters. These animals make two tracks with their front paws, then swing their back legs forward to land in the same spot, giving the impression of two-by-two tracks. If you find some weasel tracks, try to follow them and see if you can find a spot where the animal has tunneled into the snow. Weasels like to travel under the drifts to get closer to their prey, such as mice.
The third type of track pattern is that of waddlers. Coyotes, foxes, lynx and mountain lions — as well as deer, elk and moose — all belong in this category. These animals usually have big, heavy bodies that travel slowly and their tracks look a lot like ours; when we walk or snowshoe we make one track on the right, then the left, then right and so on. In Summit County, keep an eye out for porcupine tracks, which have a pigeon-toed pattern (with feet turned inwards) and drag marks from the animal's body and heavily quilled tail.
Have you ever noticed how dogs behave when you are out on a trail skiing or snowshoeing? They like to bound off the trail to investigate interesting scents and run up and down the trail to greet people or other dogs. Their track patterns are a lot more disorganized than a wild animal's. Coyotes and foxes have dog-like footprints, but are usually on a mission to find prey and so they try to conserve their energy by making a straight and deliberate path. Sometimes they will travel on packed surfaces such as trails or roads because it is easier to get around and when in deep snow, they'll place their front and hind feet in the same place to minimize energy use.
At Keystone Science School, we often find tracks when we're out snowshoeing or cross-county skiing, and students get excited when they're able to figure out what kind of animal made the track we're looking at. Other clues that help us figure out what kind of animal made the tracks include habitat (for example, otter tracks are most likely to be found near rivers), and signs such as hair or scat. Next time you head out to hike, ski, or snowshoe, watch carefully for tracks and patterns and try to figure out what kind of animal made them. Have fun making your own tracks, too!
To learn more about Keystone Science School, please visit our website www.keystonescienceschool.org or contact us at (970) 468-2098.