What’s that track?
The size of the turkey track is distinctive because the turkey is our largest game bird. Note how it “toes-in” as it walks. The middle toe is slightly curved inward. MICHELLE HAYES/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
Frequently we are asked to identify various tracks that people have taken pictures of. Of course, they want to know what animal left those tracks behind. Here are some things we need to know that will help us correctly identify the tracks:
Location, location, location. This is probably the most important part of the puzzle when figuring out what animal left the tracks. For herbivores traveling outside their “home” it’s dangerous, so good cover is important. Hedgerows and brambles offer protection because where there are herbivores there will be predators. A water source is not necessary because there is water in the plants they are eating.
Animals tend to take the easiest routes across landscapes, and that means using cover to move without being detected by predators. Small rodents and rabbits rarely use open fields because they offer little to no protection.
Transition zones are where two habitats meet such as a forest and a field. In transition zones a wide variety of vegetation and animals can be found. This intersection of two very different habitats will be for travel and cover. These zones are also interesting places to look for tracks.
Urban or rural? Habitat loss will cause unlikely animals to show up in a backyard. As animals lose habitat they are forced to adapt and become more urban in their behaviors. So having an animal show up “in town” is not always cause for alarm.
Scale. When photographing a track for identification, it’s important to use something like a coin, dollar bill or a ruler to give the track some scale. Tracks with no size comparison are a lot harder to identify. By using a coin, dollar bill or ruler we can rule out specific animals due to the size alone.
Where did it go? About 90 to 95 percent of the time an animal will use a “normal walking pattern” when moving through a habitat. Obviously, if an animal is being chased, the pattern and tracks change. The way an animal walks, hops, runs or bounds may help with an identification because we have a series of tracks.
Strange or unusual tracks in the snow and the mud occur because many animals walk by stepping into the print twice. For instance, a deer will step into the print made by a front left leg with the back left leg sometimes creating weird prints. Knowing how an animal normally walks helps us explain the unusual tracks that are found. It’s fun to speculate that it is some weird creature or a newly discovered creature, but every time it turns out to be something common.
Some surfaces such as mud or snow leave clearer and “truer” prints than dry soils and sand. It is important to know that the print might not be an exact copy of the animal’s foot. Melting snow or extremely wet soils will distort the tracks, making them look a lot bigger. Depending on the surface and how the animal walks, the track might not always be a giveaway to the animal that left it. Some things to think about when trying to identify a track are:
• How many toes are there?
• What does the bottom surface of the foot look like?
• When the creature walks, what parts of its feet touch the ground?
• Does the foot have nails? Hooves? Claws? If there are claws, do they touch the ground when the animal walks (as they do with dogs)? Or are the claws retracted (as they are in cats)?
We are always interested in trying to solve the riddles of those tracks left behind, so if you have track photographs, email them or stop in and let’s figure it out together!
Jeannie Carl is a naturalist at the Carbon County Environmental Education Center. The center is located at 151 E. White Bear Drive in Summit Hill. Call 570-645-8597 for information.