Tracking Animals Through Their Print

Animals usually have certain senses that prevail over others. Some animals have phenomenal hearing, an acute sense of smell, or extremely sensitive nerve endings that detect even slight movements in water or the ground. For humans, the sense of sight seems to be one of the strongest senses for studying surroundings, and tracking things. We use our eyes to look for evidence that something was there, looking for anything that was left behind that may bring us closer to what we are looking for.

Luckily, most animals leave prints. Some leave footprints, some leave more unique tracks from their presence. If they move by sliding along the ground, like a turtle or snake for example, they may leave peculiar looking drag marks. Regardless, whatever an animal leaves behind is a print of its past existence there. Studying these marks can make a fascinating pastime for lovers of the outdoors, and animal enthusiasts.

A fresh snow is great for tracking animals. Without any disturbances to confuse things, one can really follow the direction an animal is moving, and what may have occurred throughout the journey. Tracking animals can offer insight into what the animal may have felt at the time the print was made. Did the animal make a sudden change in direction? Does it look like two animals were fighting? Did a whole groups of animals come through this spot together? These are some of the questions that can be answered by carefully studying what animals leave behind.

For the beginning tracker, there are things you can do to teach yourself what to look for when observing an animal’s prints. Go to a location that is likely to leave good clear footprints. Now think of the different physical movements you might use when traveling on your feet. Running, walking, turning, jumping, and stopping are all common movements that most animals do. By laying your own trail, and doing all of these movements, you can then carefully examine your own prints and see how your movements affected the shape, depth, and direction of the track. Once you understand your own tracks, it becomes easier to speculate on tracks made by other animals.

You can determine physical characteristics of an animal from its print. After seeing hundreds of tracks from one species, it is possible to identify the size, and possibly the age of an animal, just by the size of the print. The animal may have an injury or abnormality that affects its walking pattern, resulting in non typical yet consistent prints. Maybe the animal is running and jumping, leaving deep tracks, or maybe it’s softly stalking around trying to be invisible, leaving only the slightest indentation in the most impressionable of surfaces. There are many scenarios that can be seen in the prints of wildlife. Each trail is its own story, written by a unique animal, and interpreted only through speculation.

Tracking animals through the prints they leave behind is not a difficult activity to take up.  There are numerous field guides and identification books for specific regions all over the world. They contain photos, drawings, and other useful information. Tracking is easiest in places where prints are clearly visible. Mud, soft dirt, sand, and snow are all good surfaces for tracking. Sources of water are gathering places for all animals, so beginning a search for tracks along the banks of a water source is a great way to locate animal prints. Keeping your own journal or collection of tracks is a great way to learn about the animals in your specific area. If you logged print drawings or pictures of prints in it regularly it would not take long to assemble your own local field guide!

Tracking animals is a type of outdoor recreation, so be sure to follow basic outdoor safety principles when out and about. It’s easy to get caught up looking for the next print and lose track of your own direction. If you happen to be tracking a dangerous animal, or find yourself in a remote location, it is crucial to stay aware of your surroundings. It’s always a good idea to have a buddy with you in those types of situations.

Sources: Tom Brown Jr, The Science and the Art of Tracking (Book)