Introductory Exercise 8:

Recognizing the Track

This is the final exercise in the Introductory series.  In it, you will identify a wild ungulate’s trail at your site.  It may easy or hard to make the identification, depending on the conditions.  If it’s easy for you, then you’ll be finished quickly.  You should, in any case, become familiar with the full procedure for track and sign identification as outlined below.

Since I recommend that you not trail wild ungulates in snow deeper than just a few inches, it is appropriate in that circumstance to look for the trails of other species, whom you can follow regularly till you can stick with an ungulate’s trail for the long-term.

There are many excellent regional guides in the U.S. to track and sign identification, and you can get from most of them the information to which we refer here.  Because of its scope and clarity, I refer to Mammal Tracks & Sign by Mark Elbroch.  If you continue onto subsequent sections of Trailing Wildlife, you should certainly purchase that guide.

When it comes to track and sign identification, most things can be confused for something else.  I have seen good trackers look at beaver tracks and call them deer tracks.  In that particular case, the beaver tracks only registered two toes, which went a few inches down into mud, and other features of the foot did not register.  So, the impressions of those toes actually looked like they could have been made by hooves.  This is a caution to base any identification on more than a single piece of evidence.

In this exercise, you will be measuring tracks and trails.  Before going into the field, please refer to the instructions in the field guide for how to take measurements (pages 74-79 in Elbroch’s Mammal Tracks & Sign), since people employ various methods and come up with different results; it’s important to use the method outlined in your guide so that you can compare your measurements to the size range given there.

Take a measuring device with you into the field.  If possible, please also take a camera and get photos of the tracks and sign not just so that you can compare them to the pictures in the guide, but also so that you can upload them to iNaturalist.org, where other naturalists can view your pictures and agree or disagree with your identifications.  iNaturalist.org is an awesome peer-to-peer mentoring resource, and it behooves us all to take full advantage of it.

During your field time, look for tracks in a substrate where you can reasonably measure a track’s dimensions. This will probably be in moist, soft ground; so, look especially along the edges of wetlands or vernal areas.  Look as well for strings of tracks so that you get trail measurements.  Look also for sign of feeding, bedding, scat, rubbing, scraping, etc.  All provide useful evidence about the author of your trail.  The Elbroch guide is comprehensive in its treatment.

Once you find tracks and trail:

  • Make notes about the foot morphology reflected in the track:
    • Claws
    • Toes
    • Palm and heel pads, including dew claws
  • Make notes about the trail features (Elbroch discusses gaits on pages 45-79):
    • Do the feet register facing in (pigeon-toed), out or straight ahead?
    • Is it easy or difficult to ascertain whether a particular step is on the right or left side of the body?  That is to ask, does the trail zig-zag or it is in a fairly straight line?
    • If the tracks appear in a regular, consistent spacing, do you see one or two tracks on each side of the trail?
    • If the tracks do not appear in a regular, consistent spacing, do you see 2, 3 or 4 tracks in the groupings of tracks?
    • Note that if you cannot ascertain answers to these trail questions, you may be on a trail made by more than one animal, in which case, find another section of the trail where the answers may be more evident
  • Measure:
    • The track’s length
    • Its width
    • The trail width
    • The length of a step if the track pattern shows diagonal steps with consistent spacing; do this for 5 or 6 steps, if possible
    • The group length of a set of tracks as well as the stride if the track pattern reflects inconsistent spacing; do this for 5 or 6 groups, if possible
  • Look for secondary sign
    • Before going into the field, refer to the guide’s index and look for pictures of your target animal’s associated sign so that you can have a sense of what you might find
  • Photograph:
    • A close-up of a track that includes either a measuring device or a penny for scale (pennies are good, because they are exactly ¾” in diameter; use something else if you don’t have a penny)
    • A section of the trail showing a few steps
    • Secondary sign that can serve as backup evidence for your identification
  • If possible, post your photos and your identification to the North American Animal Tracking Database on iNaturalist.org
    • For instructions on how to join the site and post observations, visit Jonah Evans's webpage here.

A Tracker's

TRAIL

© Nate Harvey, 2015