A guide to tracks

A track is a single impression left behind by one of an animal’s feet. It is one in a long string of impressions that ultimately weave a trail to the animal itself. While we don’t always get those perfect prints in the mud with claws and perfectly rendered digits, we can occasionally discern enough detail to identify an animal based on the track alone. In this section you’ll learn about the key features to look for on a track and some of the key features of the tracks of common Vermont mammals.

Need a refresher on animal gaits?

We’ve got you covered. It can be hard to find that perfect track. Having a keen sense of gait patterns can help with both identification and interpreting animal behavior.

learn about gaits

How to look at tracks

A track is an animal’s signature, a mark etched in the earth by its feet hand. Each track is unique in its own way, but there are patterns across sex, species, and family lines. As with a signature, by looking at a track we can discern much about the personality of the individual that left it behind. The first question that usually comes up is what species made this track. As we get better at tracking, our questions get deeper and deeper. Was this male or female? Young or old? Tired or well-rested? And so on.

Species ID:
There are a few main questions you can ask when looking at a track (for more on looking at series of tracks and gait patterns, go here).

  1. Shape
    1. Are the front and rear tracks the same shape?
    2. What is the overall shape (e.g. oval, round, wedge shaped) of the front and rear foot tracks?
  2. Size
    1. What is the size of the track (both width and length measured from the tip of the claws to the back of the pads)?
    2. Are the hind feet larger/smaller than the front feet?
  3. Claws and toes
    1. How many toes on the front/rear foot?
    2. Does the animal show claws in the track?
      1. If so, what is the spacing between the claws and the feet
    3. Is the animal plantigrade (walks on the soles of its feet) or digitagrade (walks on its toes)?

Once we know more about the size and shape of the tracks and its toes/claws we can pretty easily ID down to family and with some more refined measurements get down to species.

Quick ID Key to Family for Tracks

  1. Track with 5 toes in rear 5 toes in front
    1. Front + back roughly same size & shape
      1. Mustelidae (weasels, fisher, otters)
      2. Mephitidae (skunks)
      3. Didelphidae (possums)
      4. Insectivora (order containing shrews + moles),
    2. Front + back different size & shape
      1. Ursidae (bear)
      2. Procyonidae (raccoons)
      3. Leporidae (rabbits)
  2. Track with 5 toes in rear, 4 in front
    1. Rodentia (order containing squirrels, beavers, mice, rats, muskrats)
  3. Track with 4 toes in rear, 4 in front
    1. Tracks round: Felidae (cats)
    2. Tracks oval: Canidae (dogs)
  4. Track with 2 toes in rear and front
    1. Cervidae (deer, moose)