How to Identify Wild Animals by Their Tracks & Feces

Red Fox in the snowLearning how to identify the animal tracks and scat can give the outdoorsperson insight into creatures otherwise unseen and unheard. This article focuses on mammals, but you can track anything from beetles to alligators with a little study and experience.


Difficulty: Moderately Easy

Finding and Interpreting Tracks and Scat

Things You’ll Need:
  • Tape measure
  • Field notebook (preferably waterproof)
  • Tracking guide
Step 1
Collect measurements. For basic tracking, start with the length and width of both fore and hind prints, if you can distinguish them.
The length and width of the prints are usually not enough to definitively identify their maker, especially in the case of similar species within a family. Mountain lions and Canada lynx, which differ substantially in size, leave tracks of comparable dimension due to the lynx's disproportionate, snowshoe-like paws. Get in the habit of measuring the stride---the distance between consecutive prints made by the same foot, best measured at the rear of the mark---and straddle, the width of the entire trail.
"A Field Guide to Mammal Tracking in North America" by James Halfpenny includes reference charts for average measurements. Carry Halfpenny's book and "A Field Guide to Animal Tracks" by Olaus Murie with you; they'll be invaluable in helping identify animals.
Step 2
Familiarize yourself with basic characteristics of commonly encountered tracks. Count the toes, where applicable. Differences can be subtle: To tell apart the front prints of grizzly and black bears, for example, lay a flat edge from the bottom of the big toe across the track. If the line intersects the little toe, it's likely a black bear's print; if not, there's a good chance it's that of a grizzly, which curves less.
Look also for the orientation and character of the animal trail. Big dogs and wolves, which leave very similar tracks, move differently---the dog more boldly and inquisitively, investigating everything in its path; the wolf more unwaveringly and conservatively.
Step 3
Note the context of the trail. Canine prints in close association with human tracks might rule more in favor of a domestic dog than a coyote. A cloven hoofprint on a shortgrass plain might be a mule deer's, while nearby but in bottomland timber of the river breaks, a similar-looking track could be the more brush-coveting whitetail.
Step 4
Look for the size, shape, and composition of scat when trying to identify its owner. A close study of the tracking field guides is critical, as scat---highly contingent on an animal's immediate diet---is often much more variable than tracks. As a general rule, ungulates (including horse, deer and pigs) on a woody diet, as well as many rodents and lagomorphs, leave piles of pellet-shaped droppings, while carnivores produce ropier scat.

Tips & Warnings

Standard wilderness navigation skills apply in tracking situations. Don't commit yourself to questionable bushwhacking for the sake of following a more sure-footed animal, and respect public and private property regulations. Don't investigate animal carcasses in areas where large carnivores are prevalent; bears especially can be energetic in defending their prizes.

Article Written By Ethan Schowalter-Hay

Ethan Schowalter-Hay is a writer and naturalist living in Oregon. He has written for the "Observer," the Bureau of Land Management and various online publishers. He holds a Bachelor of Science in wildlife ecology and a graduate certificate in geographic information systems from the University of Wisconsin.

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