Tips for Recognizing Animal Tracks

Tips for Recognizing Animal Tracks
Hikers and backpackers frequently encounter the tracks of animals. In order to recognize animal tracks, it is necessary to have an idea of what types of animals inhabit the region. Observe the track closely, looking for specific distinguishing features that will help to identify the aimal that left the print. Knowledge like this is gained through research and study, and field guides are a great aid to this pursuit. If you are interested in becoming more aware of your surroundings while hiking or backpacking or even in your own backyard, these suggestions will help.




Once a track has been encountered, you need to consider where it has been found and what type of creature capable or making that track lives in the area. For example, a track found near a river bank more than likely belongs to an animal that dwells near the water and depends on it as a source of food such as a mink, raccoon, or beaver. Certain animals can be eliminated quickly as the maker of a particular track. For example, a track that someone has established as belonging to a member of the rodent family in Connecticut cannot have been made by a porcupine, since there are none in that state. By having a working knowledge of what animals live where you are, you can quickly narrow down what might have made any tracks you come across.


A track's distinguishing features are what will help you to recognize it. Factors such as the track's length, width, and shape come into play as does whether the track has any visible marks made by claws at the base of where the toes are. Some animal tracks can be quickly identified by the number of toes, especially if there is a distinct set showing the front and back feet. The distance between each track is also an indicator of what animal might have left it.

Deer Tracks

Members of the deer family in the United States will leave a two-toed track. The size of the deer and the condition of the ground will determine how deep the track is. Deer such as the white-tailed and mule deer, the elk, the moose, and the caribou have a track that is composed of two semi-circles that are side-by-side or a pair of oval-shaped impressions next to each other.

Rodent Tracks

All rodents have four toes on their front feet and five toes on their back feet. This fact is extremely helpful when you can locate a set of tracks showing both front and hind impressions. This allows you to rapidly deduce that a rodent is responsible, leaving you to ponder which one. The size of the track left by a rodent will be of further aid, with tiny ones making the choice between such smaller creatures as mice, voles, chipmunks, and squirrels, and larger ones left by an animal like muskrats, porcupines, or beavers.

Weasel Family Tracks

Five toes in the front and five toes in the back likely signifies that the print's author is a member of the weasel family. However, bears, raccoons, and opossums are also able to leave such tracks. Bear tracks will obviously be the largest of this type of track. Otters, skunks, ermine, fishers, pine martens, mink, and badgers are all part of the weasel family. Having a field guide handy or being able to take a picture of the track for later reference is a great way to ensure a positive identification. "The Peterson Field Guide to Animal Tracks," by Olaus J. Murie, is an excellent reference book to assist with recognizing a track.

Canine or Feline

Canines and felines have similar tracks but there are subtle variations which can be useful in distinguishing them. Although both have four toes on the front and hind feet, a canine such as a fox, wolf, or coyote will normally leave claw marks that extend from the toes, while a cougar, bobcat, or lynx has claws that retract and will therefore leave no sign of claws. The imprint from a dog's foot pads will be shaped with a single lobe, while a cat's will have two separate lobes.


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