Animal Tracks: Characteristics




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By Gillcraft

Peculiar Characteristics 

Animals, like human beings, have individual characteristics when moving unconcernedly, that is, at their ordinary pace. These characteristics vary between one type of animal and another, and also between two different animals of the same type.

On the stations of Queensland the bushmen are born and bred to their work. When they want to fetch horses in from any of the large paddocks, they use their wits to deduce where the special horse they want will be found. They know that at certain times of the day the horses will be feeding at some special part of the paddock, whereas in the morning they will be sure to go to water.

A thirteen-year-old boy was sent out one morning to fetch in a certain horse from the paddock. The paddock was about four or five miles square. He came back at lunch-time and said the horse was not in the paddock. There were about one hundred and seventy other horses there, but he was sure the particular horse wanted was not among them. He had looked through the various groups of horses, and had looked at the tracks on the ground, and knew the horse was not there, as its tracks were not to be seen anywhere in the paddock. The horse was found eventually in another paddock!

So that even with a solid-hoofed animal it is possible to distinguish the track of one from that of another. If a horse is shod, it is usually easier still, because as a general rule the shoe is made to fit the particular horse, and there are differences in length, breadth, nails, etc.

In all animals the length of stride and the positions in which the feet are placed in relation to each other are identifying marks. In the case of cloven-hoofed animals the splitting of the hoof, and the shape of the two halves of the hoof, are also points which may help the tracker to identify the spoor of an animal after it has been lost.

A couple of tales in connection with the tracking of stolen camels are told in Scouting for Boys. In the one case the track was lost and afterwards picked up again, and in the other, the tracker remembered the track of the stolen camel for a year, and after that length of time recovered it.

The split in the hoof in most cloven-hoofed animals varies according to age, sex and so on. In cattle there is a general tendency for the hoof to open out more at the toe than at the heel in full-grown animals, while in immature animals the tendency is for the split to be wider at the heel. Again, ordinarily speaking, the male has a squarer toe than the female, just as in human beings. The two halves of the foot are not uniform in shape and size, and the difference between the two is an important clue for the purpose of identification.

It is impossible to give indications by which you will be able to distinguish the track of one animal in any particular class from another animal in the same class. I can only give one or two general ideas as examples.

Cattle, sheep and pigs leave tracks in two parallel lines, one on each side of the central line of the track. The impressions of all four feet are clearly seen. The sheep has a smallish, pointed hoof; the pig, on soft ground, shows the marks of the dew claws behind the marks of the hooves; the goat usually places its hind feet well in front of its fore, and has a more irregular cleft.

In most kinds of deer the tracks register, that is, the marks of the fore feet are covered by the marks of the hind, but a deer track will show the condition of the animal to a great extent. The doe nearly always registers; when heavy in young the feet will be spread wider apart laterally. The buck varies according to the season. When full of strength in the early spring its hind feet will overstep the marks made by the fore feet. As the rutting season progresses they will drop back and register; and when he is worn out and out of condition it will be found that the hind feet lag behind the fore feet.


(3) (4)

Spoor of (i) Bullock. (2) Pig. (3) Sheep. (4) Deer. Reduced to 1/2 size.

The Canadian moose and caribou have each peculiar characteristics as regards their track. For his size the moose has a small, sharp hoof, which is apt to sink through the snow, so that in winter he generally confines himself to a single tract of ground. The caribou has a smaller hoof, but not in proportion to its smaller bulk; the hoof spreads out, like a camel's, and prevents it from sinking so much into the snow, so that in deep snow he can travel more or less as he pleases. The uncle I have already quoted notes in his papers:

"Caribou on the march, from one part of the forest, or from one feeding ground to another, always go in Indian file - each stepping exactly in the footsteps of the leader - so that, if you come upon a track where perhaps thirty have passed, you would, until you have been educated, think that only one caribou had passed along.

"The Indian hunter, however, knows better, and from the depth of the footmark and numerous other signs will tell you, with wonderful accuracy, how many there are in the herd, the pace they were going, the number of minutes, hours, or days since they passed."

The toe-walkers comprise the two great tribes of canines and felines, and a comparison of the track of the dog with that of the cat brings out an extraordinary number of differences. These differences are entirely due to the characteristics of the two different types of animals, and these characteristics arise out of the mode of life that they adopted in the past, and out of the locality in which they were accustomed to live.

The dog leaves a zig-zag track, like the horse, with the marks of all four feet showing in two parallel lines. Through domestication it has become lazy so that it does not always show a true, clear track, but frequently leaves a lopsided, irregular one. In any case the marks of the nails can be seen. In days of yore the dog in its wild state hunted for its food, as its wild cousins the wolves do to this day. He hunted by speed over the deserts and plains. His claws are used to protect his soft pads from contact with the hard ground, and speed was his only object, so that he planted his feet anywhere that was convenient, without worrying to any extent about the noise he was likely to make.

The cat leaves a comparatively straight track which shows only one line of marks more or less on a central line. The cat, as its wild cousins - the leopard and the tiger - do to this day, lived amongst the jungle and stalked its prey by stealth. Speed was not so much a consideration as quietness. It stalked carefully along, planting its hind feet in exactly the same spot where its fore feet had been, so that only the marks of the hind paws were left on the ground. This was important, because if the hind paw snapped a twig the noise might alarm its prey. As a stalker it had trained itself to balance in all positions, so that its feet could be brought more under the body, and it could worm its way along through bushes and small openings. It needed its claws with which to tear up its prey, for the cat has no canine teeth like the dog, and so the claws were sheathed to keep them sharp.

So the dog leaves four marks showing claws, the cat leaves two marks showing no claws. There is one exception in the feline tribe in regard to claws, and that is the hunting leopard, or cheetah, of India. It has been trained to hunt by speed like a dog, and so has developed still more peculiar characteristics. I once read a letter in a newspaper which said that if a wild cat missed its stalk, it could run down a rabbit or a hare in one hundred and fifty yards. I am afraid I am rather skeptical of this information.

A fox leaves a pad-mark rather like that of a small dog, but there are several points of dissimilarity. The impression is narrower by comparison with its length; the hind pad is smaller compared with the size of the toes; while a careful examination of a clear print will show traces of hair between the toes, and the toes and the pad, leaving a furry margin as opposed to the more clear-cut impression of the dog's paw.

The fox's trail, or series of tracks, seems to be more akin to that of the cat than the dog. The dog splashes along, and seems to take special delight in putting its feet in muddy places, while the fox walks deliberately and avoids wet and dirty places. Usually, too, the fox registers its hind paw over the impression made by the fore paw, like the cat, and, naturally, avoids beaten tracks used by men.

There is one interesting point in connection with the toe-walkers that might be mentioned, and that is that the back of the fore foot is concave and the back of the hind foot convex, just as the back of the palms of our hands is concave and the back of our heels is convex.

All the animals I have mentioned above are proportionate, although they fall into different classes on account of the formation of their feet.

The best way to distinguish between the various types of animals whose hind legs are longer than their fore legs is by the size of the actual track, and the distance between the successive marks. For instance, it might be easy to distinguish the track of a kangaroo from that of a hare, but not so easy to distinguish the track of a hare from that of a rabbit; although, if you have the tracks of a rabbit and hare side by side, there would not be much difficulty. Locality will aid to a certain extent in the latter problem, and locality should always be taken into account when you are trying to identify any particular track. In these leap-frog tracks, an important point to be certain of is the direction in which the animal is travelling. Some Scouts find it difficult to grasp that a four-footed animal's hind legs can come in front of the fore legs.

The third class of animals with short legs again show peculiar characteristics between the various types, although most of them are also sole-walkers. These characteristics depend more upon the length of the bound than upon the size of the individual marks made. Many will show the marks of the tail as a drag between the two parallel lines of track. The tail marks the otter when coupled with his size, and the fact that he walks a few steps occasionally. Rats seem to leave their trails behind more than mice do, but the different varieties of each leave a slightly different track. A water vole and a common brown rat may be difficult to distinguish from each other by the track they leave, but here again environment should be taken into account.

Among the corpulent class of animals, the badger will register the hind foot across the fore, as has been mentioned, the porcupine will also turn his fore toes in slightly, while the three long nails of the badger's fore will usually be more clearly marked than the four long nails of the porcupine. The beaver's toes are spread out, and webbed to a certain extent.

This chapter is very inadequate, and only gives a few generalizations, but it would take more space than can be afforded to enter into the details of the peculiarities of the track of each different type of animal. At the same time it would make the cost of this book prohibitive if pictures of a large number of animal tracks were given. A useful series of careful drawings of animal tracks will be found in J. S. R. Chard's British Animal Tracks (Pearson). It is of the first importance that, if Scouts are being taught to recognize the tracks of different types of animals from pictures or diagrams, at least one mark should be life-size. Otherwise it is not possible for the Tenderfoot to distinguish between the track of the bear and the track of the porcupine! Track dies will be found useful because they give a life-sized representation of the single print, although, you will remember, they cannot give a lifelike representation of the trail the animal would leave, nor will you always see in actual practice the clear-cut impression that the die leaves.

Training in Tracking

Outdoor Skills






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