Science: Wildlife Tracks and Signs - Track
Patterns (sometimes called gaits)
Match up wild animals with their associated track patterns,
waddlers, gallopers, bounders, and perfect steppers
(also known as walkers). Don’t always get hung up on what
individual prints look like.
Use your tracking guide to compare both individual tracks and
track patterns, by shape, size, and stride. Try to identify the
track pattern first. This will help you to narrow down the field to
several small groups.
When snow is deep or if the snow begins to melt, the detail of
individual prints can be very difficult to read. This is a better
opportunity to study the “track patterns” of animals. This will
help you to narrow down the species of wild animal you are following
(or group of several similar species, such as the bounder group,
which includes weasels). Every animal has a unique way to walk (but
may mimic the track patterns of other animals at times). A
cottontail rabbit hops along, while a red fox walks on all fours,
and humans walk upright on two feet. Each animal has a different
length of stride, too.
The tracks we find are usually from
mammals. Birds also leave behind tracks on occasion, or
even feather strokes, especially in snow where they capture
Snakes and fish may leave behind tracks and signs on
occasion, too, if you look very carefully!
Sometimes just a dusting or a few inches
of snow will reveal the greatest detail of the animal’s
This is the track pattern of a sliding
mink or otter. They leave prints along the sides of their
slides where the animal “paddled” through the snow. (Some
such patterns may even alternate between bounding and
sliding on flat ground.)
||These waddling tracks are from a skunk.
Note the waddler track pattern in the image above. Waddler
tracks lack the regularity of other track patterns. They often seem
to move one side of the body then the other, or step with sporadic
Waddler tracks often appear under thick brush, around rocks,
along river banks, and even in open areas. This is the look of a
typical waddler track pattern.
Look for other animals that waddle along, such as raccoons,
muskrats, woodchucks, and opossums. Opossums may drag their tails,
These tracks are from a squirrel galloping from left-to-right.
Gallopers will place their smaller front feet down first and then
the larger hind feet land in front as the front feet lift up.
Squirrels generally place their front feet down directly
side-by-side, while the front feet of rabbits and hares are
generally placed down offset (not side-by-side). The hind feet of
both are placed down side-by-side.
Squirrel track patterns often begin and end at trees and may
move across open areas. Along squirrel track routes, look for holes
that they may have dug, while looking for acorns and other seeds.
Rabbit tracks may also move across open areas, though they often
begin and end at shrubs and
thick brush (not trees).
Look for other animals that gallop along, such as white-footed
mice, red squirrels, and Eastern chipmunks.
|Minks also create narrow slides, by sliding on their
bellies down to the river. Can you slide (sled) like a
Bounders hop and leap along like a slinky traveling down stairs.
They place their front feet down. In one motion, they lift their
front feet up and place their hind feet down in the exact same spot
where the front landed and leap forward again. This is an energy
efficient locomotion, which creates the optical illusion that the
animal is really only hopping along on two feet, side-by-side.
Look for other animals that bound along, such as river otters,
short-tailed weasels (ermines) and fishers.
Perfect Steppers (Walkers)
These fox tracks step perfectly, in a straight line.
Perfect steppers walk very carefully, for a matter of energy
efficiency. Very intentionally they will place down the front foot
and then the hind foot in the same spot where the front landed.
This is especially important in deep snow or for safety.
Domestic dog and wild dog track patterns are “perfect steps”,
which look very similar. However, domestic dog tracks often wind
and circle, where as the tracks of a coyote or a fox will likely
take a more direct and energy efficient course. Perfect stepper
tracks are often observed where travel would be easy, such as right
along the Greenway trail itself.
A dog track (left) can have an "X" drawn through it and a cat track (right)can have a "C" drawn through it. Notice that the dog track has claw marks showing and the cat track does not. Also, the cat track does not appear symmetrical, as does the dog track.