Animal Tracking

At the Aldo Leopold Nature Center we take many snowy, guided hikes to look for animal tracks. We imagine the tracks as evidence of the lives animals live while we’re not looking, a story of the land. Some stories are clear, others take a little investigation, and still others just leave us guessing. Several years ago I was out with a group of after-school students investigating these snowy stories of the animal world. We found the straightforward path of the coyote – a “perfect walker” who steps in it’s own front foot prints – where it sauntered across the frozen pond. We peeked into perfectly round, silver-dollar-sized holes made by meadow voles burrowing in the insulating snow-cover. And we traced a trail of heart-shaped deer prints traversing the prairie and ambling into the woods. All common winter tracks that told a fairly easy-to-read tale of food-seeking behavior and winter survival. We used clues like print size, depth, and pattern to tell us the type of animal, how quickly it was moving, and what it might be doing.

Near the edge of the pond we found a new track. We stopped to investigate. It wasn’t deep in the snow so we knew it was a light-weight animal. The tracks were not clear like the deer and coyote so maybe it’s legs were not long, the body was dragging in the snow. And the path was fairly straight like this animal had somewhere to be. Our job at the Nature Center is to insight wonder and encourage questioning and investigation. I asked the children what they thought would make this track. The truth is, I didn’t know myself. We had to find out more. We followed the trail. We trooped through the calf-deep snow, roughly tracing the edge of the pond until the trail simply stopped. We knelt down to try to discern the next chapter in the tale. Suddenly, the snow moved – it was the trail-maker itself. A frog!

Never had I seen – and never since – a frog in the snow. We’ll never know how or why this frog broke its hibernation. Aquatic frogs like our arctic-adventuring Bullfrog generally spend the winter in a state of torpor on top of or partially buried in the pond mud, taking in free oxygen from the water. And we’ll never know if the frog made it back to the safety of hibernation or provided a healthy snack for a predator in the otherwise sparsely food-stocked winterscape. But these are the stories, adventures, and questions that keep us intrigued and encourage us to keep exploring; to keep learning about and imagining the stories of the animals around us.

Find out more about how frogs survive winter and the amazing way they freeze without dying from Northwestern’s Helix, or from Scientific America. You can also learn more about “perfect walkers,” “waddlers,” “bounders,” and more tracking patterns from GreenBelly or from Backpacker.com.

Did you know…

Click to enlarge

Members of the weasel, rodent, and rabbit families have small front feet and larger, longer hind feet, while canine and feline front and hind feet are nearly identical in size and shape.

Coyote is not the only “perfect walker.” Deer, moose, elk, fox, dogs, wolves, and bobcats also create this distinct track pattern.

Can you figure out who made the tracks pictured here? It’s the River otter who likes to add a belly slide to their mode of travel.

According to GreenBelly, stride and straddle are important aspects to measure and understand when reading tracks. They say, “stride and straddle measure the gate of an animal and can be used to distinguish between two very closely related prints. Stride is measured from the heel of one print to the heel of the other print on the same side. Straddle is the measurement of the width of the track from the outside of the right track to the outside of the left track.”

Other things to look for: number of toes, if nails are showing, webbing, and tail drags.

Nature Net News Flashback from 2011

There are many different types of tracking in addition to finding footprints. For example, Large Scale Sign, used by the United States Search and Rescue Task Force, involves reading the landscape for traces of activity and habitation, such as resources an animal needs (food, water or bedding), signs of animal dens, or the presence of “indicator” animals like vole, rabbits or deer. Medium Scale Sign includes evidence of animals such as rubs, gnaws, feathers or broken twigs.

See a crazy K-shaped birdtrack? Owls and woodpeckers have a unique foot structure, known as a “zygodactyl,” which means two toes point forward and two point backward. In owls, the “K” points outward, and in woodpeckers, the “K” points in.

Following tracks can also lead you to piles of “scat,” which are the droppings of animals. Scat can give you a lot of clues about what an animal eats!

To Do This Month:

  • Improve the habitat for wildlife and enroll in Wisconsin’s Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP) by March 1st.
  • Enjoy an animal tracks themed family walk with the UW-Arboretum. Explore the grounds as you hunt for tracks in the snow.
  • Make an adventure of your own and use the Wisconsin DNR’s list of Mammal Tracks to identify the tracks hiding in your very own backyard!
  • Check out one of the many available ice skating rinks throughout the Madison area and put your skills to the test. See which rink is closest to you.
  • Make your own tracks in the snow as you practice your downhill skiing or take a ride on a snow tube down Cascade Mountain’s snowy 1,000 foot chute.

Find more fun and educational nature-related events on the Nature Net Calendar.

Animal Track Casts

Favorite Animal Tracking Books

UW Arboretum

Events This Month

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For Educators:

Wisconsin Society for Science Teachers

The Wisconsin Society for Science Teachers (WSST) is hosting their annual conference March 7-9, 2019 at the Monona Terrace in Madison. The Society’s mission is “promoting, supporting, and improving science education in the state of Wisconsin.” It boasts being the largest membership organization in Wisconsin focused on the advancement of science education. The conference offers presentations, field trips, and workshops, along with a equipment swap, and vendor booths. Registration for all three days is just $85 for WSST members (and $120 for non-members; $25 for students).

Along with the annual conference, WSST manages several grant programs to support teacher’s professional development, improve science classroom experiences, and cover the cost of technology and science curriculum development. They also host an annual Awards program to recognize outstanding educators in the field of science. Know anyone you’d like to nominate?

Find out more from the WSST website at WSST.org.

For Families:

Tracking Hike and Photo Log

Create a “Tracks and Signs” photo library with an easy DIY tracking kit. Include a camera, tape measure, notebook, pencil, magnifying glass, and a reliable tracking book. I have Paul Rezendes’ “Tracking and the Art of Seeing” on my bookshelf; others recommend James Lowery’s “The Tracker’s Field Guide.” Or, go digital with iTrack Wildlife which offers several versions (from free to $15) to help you identify what you find in the field. The best pictures are taken when the sun is low and casts a shadow over the track. Lay down a ruler or object of known length next to the track so the scale and size has context, then take another photo from further back to document the pattern and surroundings.

Individual tracks are not always as important to figuring out which animal passed by as is the trail pattern. Most animals can be identified by their walking pattern alone. You can also document other signs of animal presence including scat (droppings) which can tell you which animal left it, what it ate, how long ago it was there, and other animals in the area.  You might also find nests, middens (piles of discarded nut shells or seeds), food caches, dig holes, tunnels, dens, nipped twigs, runs (trails used over and over or by many animals), beds or places where an animal has laid down, and bark rubbings or scrapes.

For more tracking tips and photos of tracks and signs, visit the NatureTracking.com, including this page which also offers a great photo gallery of species you’re likely to see in your backyard, including cat, dog, rabbit, squirrel, and deer.

Betsy bylineCopy of Betsy bylineBetsy Parker is an environmental educator who supports all children, families, and classrooms getting their recommended daily allowance of #VitaminN.
Funding for Nature Net and the Nature Net News blog is provided by American Girl Fund for Children.