Along the Trail in Minnesota State Parks: Tracks

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Podcasts
Along the Trail: Tracks .mp3 (5.25 Mb) 4/24/08

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Retta James-Gasser:

Minnesota State Park Naturalist Retta here. Today's topic is observing and identifying tracks along the trail.

Tracking is a fun hobby to do any time of the year and searching for tracks and other animal signs left in the sand, mud, dirt, dust or snow can be an exciting adventure because you never know what you might discover. Except for the chattering of a squirrel, the chirping of a bird, or the rustling of vegetation that can be heard as a deer or other animal moves through the landscape, you rarely get to see wild animals, because wild animals are a lot quicker to smell, hear, and see us and they take off before we've the opportunity to see them. But the chance of seeing their tracks or other signs that they left behind is much greater.

When you come across a track there are a few things to consider and observe that will help you identify it. They are habitat, season, the track itself, and other nearby animal signs. A fairly quick way to narrow down identifying the track maker is to consider the habitat first. For example, knowing that beavers build their lodges in water you can eliminate the possibility of finding beaver tracks in the middle of a grassy field with no water in sight. Similarly if you know that a furry pine martin prefers the fairly remote pinelands habitat of northern Minnesota, then you can eliminate the chance of seeing its tracks in a busy city park in central Minnesota. Use your best judgment and remember the simple things such as where did you see the track – in a forest, wetland, or prairie?

Also think about the season or time of year and animal behavior patterns. Does the animal hibernate, migrate, or is it a year-round resident? Is the animal a social animal like a wolf or a solitary animal like a red fox or black bear? Is it mating season, or the time of year when young animals are being raised in a family group? These simple observations can help you figure out just who made the track or tracks.

Tracks can be seen throughout the year. Sand and snow allows you to follow the trail over a distance. Mud usually shows greater detail such as the clear edges of toe and heel pads. Dust shows the most details. The same goes for bread flour. Ever drop some flour and cookie dough on the kitchen floor only to have your pet dog quickly come over and snap up the morsel before making a messy escape? I have to tell you, if you ever lose your pet mouse, gerbil, or whatever in the house, you can track them down with bread flour. All you do is put out a nice dish of water and sprinkle some flour around it. Then when the pet comes in for a drink, yep, most animals have to drink, they'll leave a trail of flour that you can quite easily follow. I've even tracked a lost snake using the bread flour method.

OK, back to tracks. It can also be helpful to look at tracks from three perspectives. First, get low to the ground and try looking at the area from an animal's vantage point. Second, look at the landscape from your normal standing point. Can you see any other clues that the animal left behind? Third, pretend that you are high up, viewing the landscape as if you were a soaring bird looking down upon the land. Can you see what the animal may have been responding to? Notice the animal's movement pattern, or natural gait of the animal. For example, cats usually walk about the landscape while dogs tend to trot. Of course the track pattern can change as the animal's emotional behavior changes too and these changes will be reflected in the overall track pattern.

The water's edge can be one of the best places to look for tracks, because most animals have to drink or cool off during the summer. Old dirt roads and trail intersections are another good place to look for tracks and other animal signs.

Tracks can tell us many things about an animal. Is the animal good at climbing, digging, swimming, or running? Is the animal large or small? A he or she? Examining the shape, size, and number of toes on an individual track can tell you what animal family the track maker belongs to. Two-toed animals represent the deer family. Four toes represent the dog, cat, and rabbit families. Five toes represent members of the weasel family, as well as the bear, raccoon, beaver, and shrew. And then there is the rodent family. These members have four toes on the front feet and five toes on the hind feet - a great reason to examine not just an individual track, but rather a set of tracks. If it's summertime, remember to consider the track size variations between baby, adolescent, and adult animal tracks.

Tracks are much more than just an impression. Tracks can show us the secrets of an animal's private life, because the trail records the animal when it was alone and this brings us closer than ever to its normal habits and perceptions of the landscape. In case you forgot which animals have four toes, five toes, two toes, or a combination of four and five toes, don't fret. There are still some clues left behind as pressure ridges that will tell you if an animal was looking to the right because it heard a noise from that direction, if it was looking left, or up at a chattering squirrel in a tree, or looking down, sniffing the ground for the scent of supper.

You over there in the red shirt, you don't believe me! Well, here are fellow Minnesota State Park Naturalist friends Diane and Linda to tell you about a fun try-it pressure ridge test that you can do right now.

Linda Radimecky:

I'm Linda.

Diane:

Hi, I'm Diane.

Linda:

Let's take a second to stand up right now, unless you're driving.

Diane:

With both your feet flat on the floor, I want you to look up at the ceiling. While you are doing this feel your feet. Feel how your heels dig into the floor.

Linda:

Now, look down at that cookie crumb on the floor or slightly bend over and examine your big toe. While you're doing this, notice how your toes dig into the floor and the heels become faint.

Diane:

Similarly, if an animal looks up the heel marks show it and if an animal looks down the toe marks show it.

Linda:

If you look over your left shoulder feel the pressure ridges on your feet. This would be similar to other animals as well.

Diane:

Now you can experiment looking in different directions and feeling the pressure ridges left behind.

Retta:

Even after years of experience you may find many tracks and track patterns that you cannot readily identify. Most of these are simply not clear or the animal may have stepped on the same spot too many times. So there are other clues to look for that help with identification. Look for feeding signs, or injury to vegetation, the color, size, shape, and content of scat also known as animal waste -

Linda:

You mean like poop?

Retta:

That's right, but we'll be scientific and call it scat today. Scat can indicate whether the animal is a herbivore or a carnivore. Do you see signs of digging or tunneling or tail and belly drag?

Linda:

For example, the porcupine's trail dragging over the snow often erases part of its tracks and part of its pigeon-toed walking pattern.

Diane:

Or how about a mouse, a rodent who's tail drags on the ground?

Retta:

Those are great examples, Linda and Diane. You can also look for toenail marks.

Linda:

Wolves', coyotes', and dogs' toenail marks can be seen by the toe pads.

Diane:

And don't cat's usually retract their claws unless they are moving over an icy snow?

Retta:

Those are great points too. Do tracks meander about like that of a pet dog on the loose, or do the tracks form a rather straight line as a wild animal moves cautiously along the road? Do they suddenly disappear or lead to water or a tree?

Tracking can be a lifelong hobby. You're always learning. Every expert was once a beginner and every expert admits uncertainty. But by learning some basics about tracking and animal natural history, you will be well on your way. I highly recommend getting an animal tracking guide. There are many good ones available.

I recently received a question from Melissa about identifying some abnormally large tracks that she saw while visiting at her parent's home in central Minnesota. She believed the tracks were made by a white-tailed deer; however, a friend of Melissa's insisted they were errant llama tracks because they appeared to be abnormally large. From looking at the tracks, Melissa wisely noted that the animal lazily zigzagged for approximately a quarter mile on a muddy gravel road before veering off into the woods. Based upon the photo Melissa sent me, the tracks look like the front track of a large male white-tailed deer not a llama, which is increasingly being used as a pack animal in the United States. Members of the deer family, such as white-tailed deer and moose, have two toes that make a somewhat pointy, heart-shaped track and in some cases, such as when deer walk in mud, their dewclaws or dewpoints register in the mud. Each dewclaw shows up as a small circular impression just behind each toe. Even though llama and deer tracks are similar in size, llama tracks have a splay-toed appearance, even on solid ground where a deer track would be heart-shaped. Melissa placed a quarter next to the track as a way to note the track's size before taking a photo. This helped me identify the track maker as a deer and not a moose on the loose in central Minnesota. It also helped me identify the sex of the track maker. Male deer front tracks are larger and just a tad wider spaced apart from each other compared to their hind legs. This helps the animal carry the weight of their well-developed neck and front of the body region. Female deer tracks are smaller and the hind legs are just a tad bit wider spaced apart compared to the front tracks – just the opposite of males. This is because females are responsible for birthing and wider spaced hips helps the process along.

I do enjoy tracking. There're so many subtle distinctions and variations. I wish I could have seen the whole story, what was happening in the landscape altering the deer's behavior to cause it to suddenly veer of into the woods. Thanks for sending the photo Melissa.

Many interesting stories unfold when you interpret animal tracks and signs. Tracking is opening the door to the life of that animal and the life of the landscape. It's like learning how to read, how to read the landscape by observing the habitat, season, and other animal signs and tracks. Looking for animal tracks along the trail of your favorite state park or outdoor place can be an entertaining adventure and it's a lot easier to do than trying to look for that elusive wild animal, which usually requires the gift of coincidence. Tracking brings us closer to the animal's real behavior, because they were most likely made when no one was watching them.

If you have comments or suggestions for this podcast or for future podcasts, please send them to me at retta.james-gasser@state.mn.us. That's all for now.

Linda:

Thanks for listening.

Diane:

Enjoy your Minnesota State Parks naturally.