Nature Notes

Vol. III June-October 1989 No. 2


How many species of animals live at Mt. Rainier? How many have you seen? Even though we live in a National Park, we rarely see many of the animals that live near us. Why not? Most animals move quickly and with their sharp eyesight and/or keen sense of smell they are aware of the stranger in their habitat (US!) well before we see them. Animals normally fear man -- except, of course, for the Clark's Nutcracker, Steller's Jay and Black-Tailed Deer who have learned to associate people with food in some of our high visitation areas. Many species of animals are also nocturnal, limiting further our chances to see them.

Often the only evidence we have of the presence of wild animals are their tracks. You can learn a lot about an animal without ever having seen it -- where it lives, what it eats, how big it is, who its enemies are, its habits, even its age and sex. Tracking is not just following an animal's footprints, it's following a record of that animal's activities.

So when and where should you look for animal tracks? The majority of animals are most active at twilight or night. If you want to see tracks at their best, try tracking in early morning or late afternoon. The sun casts the longest shadows at these times and the low-angle light makes viewing the tracks easier. Tracks are best seen after rains (in mud or wet sand along streams or river banks) or after a light fall of wet snow. Winter offers a great opportunity to observe animal tracks.

Once you have tracked down the tracks, there are some basic observations to make -

  1. Observe the size of the individual tracks. This is a good indicator of the animal's size. You can also estimate its body length by noting the space between prints and the width between prints.

  2. Do the tracks directly register? That is, does the animal place its hind foot into the impression made by its front foot? Direct registering serves a useful purpose -- animals that stalk their prey can see where they place their front feet, so they don't break twigs or make other noises. Then they place their hind feet in the exact spot, so they can move silently from place to place. Cats will show perfect registering; dogs have lost their ability to register.

  3. Narrow down the possibilities according to the animal's gait. Tom Brown (The Tracker) breaks down an animal's normal rate of travel into 4 primary gaits:

    A) DIAGONAL WALKERS include all dogs, cats, and hoofed animals. These animals walk just like a baby crawls -- moving limbs on opposite sides of the body at the same time.


    B) PACERS include all wide-bodied animals -- bear, raccoon, skunk, wolverine, badger, beaver, porcupine, muskrat and marmot. These animals move both limbs on one side of the body at the same time with somewhat of a shuffling gait.


    C) BOUNDERS include most long-bodied, short-legged animals; mostly members of the weasel family. Bounders walk by reaching out their front feet and then bringing their back feet up directly behind them. The track pattern is square or rectangular with 2 sets of closely spaced prints.


    D) GALLOPERS include all rabbits, hares, and rodents except for the wide-bodied ones. These animals push off with their hind feet, hit with their front feet and then bring their hind feet all the way through.


    An interesting point to watch for in gallopers: If the front feet hit side by side, it indicates a tree-dwelling animal; if they hit on a diagonal it indicates a ground-dweller. For example, the front feet of squirrels, which spend most of their time in trees, hit side by side. The front feet of rabbits, which are ground dwellers, hit at a diagonal. The same rule generally applies to birds. Woodpeckers and sparrows hop on both feet at the same time. Quail and pheasants alternate steps. Robins and crows (which spend time both in trees and on the ground) do a little of both.

Following is a list of some of the specific animals or families we have in our area and the distinguishing features of their tracks:

Dog Family -- distinctive "maple leaf" shape of tracks, well-defined claw print. The fox is the only member of the dog family that directly registers. All others indirectly register (as the front foot is lifted, the hind foot comes down a little behind and to either side of that print.) Fox also tend to walk in a straight line as opposed to the wandering of a coyote or dog.

Cat Family -- 4 toes on front and rear. Cats directly register and their front feet are markedly larger than their rear feet.

Deer Family -- Most people are familiar with the heart-shaped print of the deer. Look for the split print showing the dew claw imprint when they are running.

Weasel Family -- 5 toes both front and rear. This is a diverse group whose tracks vary widely in shape and size. The gait and pattern are useful for determining species.

Rodents -- 4 toes in front, 5 in rear. Tracks vary greatly in size; track pattern is most helpful for ID. The typical gait pattern is a wide U or V shape.

Rabbits and Hares -- 4 toes up front, 4 in the rear. The front feet are placed one in front of the other. The rear feet are 2-4 times larger and wider than the front feet. Their galloping gait leaves a Y-shaped pattern.

Black Bear, Raccoon -- 5 toes in front, 5 in rear. Claws seldom show in the black bear's tracks. The hind prints are shaped like human feet, only shorter and wider. Both the bear and the raccoon have a plantigrade walk, which means they bring the heel of their back foot all the way down as we do. The raccoon's tracks look like baby's hands.

Don't forget to use other signs to help identify the animal you are tracking such as scats (droppings), holes and nests, scratching or rubbing marks on trees, and inedible parts of food that they may have left (sometimes in large piles).


By Koko Schlottman

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