Amazing Kids! Magazine

Nature’s Footprints – How to Identify Animal Tracks

By Ryan Traynor, Contributing Writer


It is very exciting when you discover animal tracks on a hiking trail. It can be an even greater adventure if you use clues from the area to determine what kind of animal made the tracks. Following these clues along with the details of your animal track, you may be able to identify the animal quickly. Tracking is a skill that you can master over time. You can practice in your yard, a park, a field or in a forest. Some basic steps are necessary to follow in order to accurately determine the origin of the print.

To prepare for your animal track identification adventure, put a notepad and pencil to note your observations and a small ruler inside a lightweight backpack. It may also be helpful to bring a digital camera, especially if your drawing skills are not very good.

It is best to spot tracks early in the day because most animals travel and eat after dark. Pictures come out best either early or late in the day because the angle of the sun puts shadows in tracks and makes them easier to see. Ground that is bare and soft is the best place to find tracks. Shoulders along a creek or trails after a rain are good places to search. Not only are these areas good for drinking, but predators wait around waterbeds to catch their prey. Pastures, barnyards, mud and even snow can display some tracks.

When you find tracks, they rarely are in perfect condition. Partial tracks or tracks that have been partially blown or scraped away will reveal fewer clues than a full print.

Let’s look at the steps to identifying animal tracks:

  1. Review all tracks and find the ones that are mostly perfect.
  2. Look carefully at the track and the area around the track.
  3. Measure its width.
  4. Measure its length.
  5. Note its shape – round, oval, oblong, etc.
  6. Note whether claw marks are showing.  If so, how many?
  7. Note whether pads are showing.  If so, how many?
  8. Note whether toes are showing.  If so, how many?
  9. Note the distance between tracks.  This is known as the animal’s gait.
  10. Usually the front and hind legs of an animal have different tracks. Can you find both the front and back prints?  If so, sketch them separately as this will help you identify the animal. For instance, a raccoon has front prints that look like hands but their back prints look like feet. Both have 5 toes but in different shapes.
  11. Draw a picture of the track or take a digital picture.
  12. Look around. What has the animal been doing in the area – Eating? Drinking? Climbing?  You may be able to see bent twigs, food remains, claw marks, trails through the underbrush, chewed leaves, scat (animal feces shows you what the animal has been eating), rubbed bark or even a shiny strip of slime. Make notes on these items in your notebook as they may be clues to what animals have been in the area.
  13. Once information has been collected, look through resource books on animal tracks. You can also ask someone local who is familiar with the animals to help you identify the track. A couple of good books are: Olaus J. Murie’s book called A Field Guide to Animal Tracks, Paul Rezendes’ book called Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Signs.

Tracks tell a story about the ones who left them. Identifying animal tracks leads us to further exploration into the life of the animal. By exploring the animals around us and learning how they eat, hunt, travel and relate to other animals, we can begin to understand nature. Let the adventure begin!