Animal Tracks Guide

Eastern Cottontail RabbitIdentifying animal tracks can reveal important information about native wildlife populations and habitat. Additionally, understanding how to read a track can prevent potential dangers, such as a skunk or bear encounter. Pack items for the trail that can assist with print identification--such as a magnifying glass, tape measure, credible field guide and camera--to build animal track interpretation skills.


Rabbit tracks are commonly found in the wild, as habitats are diverse and expand throughout the United States. Key factors that assist with rabbit print identification include the stride, shape and location of each track. Rabbit prints often show two small, circle-shaped front feet and two larger, oblong rear feet. When rabbits hop about, their front feet touch the ground first, and their hind legs land on the outside of the front feet--look for this pattern during animal track interpretation. Additionally, prints may reveal a rabbit's toes, as they have four on each foot.




Dog-friendly hikes are plentiful in the United States, increasing the chance to spot canine prints in the wild. Dog prints have an overall oval-shape to them, with the front paws often much larger than the hind paws. Each dog track will generally reveal four toes, distinct claw marks and a larger "pad" (a canine heel). The front two toes are commonly close together, and the outer toes may look like smaller-sized triangles. Measure the animal tracks to determine if the print is from another member of the canine family--the wolf. While a dog track may only be 3 or 4 inches long, a wolf's paw can be the size of a human hand. Added tips for canine track interpretation include listening for signs of a wolf or coyote (such as howling) and looking for multiple animal tracks, which may indicate that a pack passed through the area.


white tail deer

Some of the easiest animal tracks to identify are those left by deer hooves. The animal prints of a deer may look like upside-down hearts, as deer have two toes on each of their four feet. Distinct, pointed toe marks may or may not be visible, depending on the speed of animal travel and type of ground. Small circles in the print can signify a deer's dew claw. A track may be 3 to 6 inches in length (for a fawn compared to a buck). Tracks may appear in a diagonal pattern, as deer walk by moving the opposite sides of their bodies at the same time, such as the right front foot with the left rear foot, and so on. Examine the surrounding area for added help in track identification, such as oblong-shaped deer scat.


skunk and bear cub

Identifying skunk tracks is an important way to prevent negative experiences while out on a hike. As threatened skunks will release a potent-smelling odor into their environment, first determine if the animal tracks are fresh. Answer several questions: Are the tracks still damp under direct sunlight? Are the tracks deep in the mud, sand or soil? Should the answer be yes, practice extra caution, as a skunk may lurk nearby. Check the shape of each track, as skunks will leave overall, egg-shaped prints with a "fuzzy" top edge. Five distinct toe marks will be clear; additionally, look for long, thin lines that may signify claws above each toe. Front feet are smaller than hind feet, and tracks are generally displayed in a straight line of movement.


grizzly bear in Grand Teton

Should you find suspiciously large animal tracks in an area known as bear habitat (such as the deep woods, open fields and near caves), be careful while prints are identified. Bear encounters--from black to grizzly species--are potentially dangerous. Examine the area, as bears often use the same path of travel and will leave visible claw marks on trees and break sticks or branches. Bears walk flat-flooted, so four prints may be shallow in depth, unless the bear is using the same place of footfall during each pass. Look for claw marks as long as 4 inches to help with identification. Additionally, each foot may reveal five toes (with spaces in between), a large pad (or heel) and occur in a diagonal, back-and-forth or a straight pattern across the ground. Upon first glance, bear tracks may even resemble a human footprint. The stride of the animal tracks can be 18 inches to 5 feet in distance, depending on how quickly the bear is moving. Check the prints with a reputable guidebook to assist in bear species determination.


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