Tracking Desert Animals: A Beginning

 By members of the Anza-Borrego Tracking Team:

Joseph Hopkins,+ Arun Balakrishnan*, Karin Vickars,**+

Crawford N. “Mac” McNair,**+ Donna “Dee” Ghosh**, and Beth Shugan+

3-4 December 2010 and 29-29 January 2011

Intermediate Track and Sign with Barry Martin: 3-4 February 2012


“*” holds Level II certification in Track and Sign

“**” holds Level III in Track and Sign (only ten women in North America)

“+” holds National Association of Interpretation credentials

As Certified Interpretive Guide



Class Notes by Dr. John V. Richardson Jr.



I.                Class Goals

A.   To recruit volunteers for transepts


II.             Class Objectives (unstated, but inductively created)

A.   To learn proper vocabulary for describing feet, toes, and pads

B.     To learn factors for determining direction of travel

C.    To learn multiple factor decision tree rules to differentiate between canine and feline tracks

D.   To learn key differentiating factors of domestic versus wild animals

E.     To identify tracks of major desert animal families


III.           The “Five Ws and One H” Principle of Circumstances:


The dynamic interaction of these components is more important than the mere listing here—


A.   Who—made the track; identification of animal

B.     What—interpretation of events (which can be extremely difficult)

C.    When—was this made; aging (recent/old) of events

D.   Where—trailing the animal (need to know toes from pads)

E.     Why—was the animal here; eco-trailing

F.     How—becoming like the animal to understand its behavior



IV.           Justification/Significance of Evidence


Lots of reasons for involvement in this activity including:


A.   Mortality studies

B.     Corridor viability (e.g., propose overpasses based on data)

C.    Dispersal of wildlife in habitat

D.   Documenting loss of habitat (5095)

E.     Preservation of habitat

F.     Planning for the future, especially urbanization, increasing interactions due to

G.    Requirement for some studies, such as a multi-species conservation plan


V.             Looking at Tracks (Ethics and Etiquette)


A good tracker needs to consider the following “rules of thumb:”


A.   Look for environmental evidence in the habitat (e.g., scat, feeding signs on plants) as well as tracks.

B.     Examine with the tracks between you and the sun.

C.    Dirt push helps determine direction.

D.   Some, if not most, trackers believe that back-tracking is more ethical because it puts less stress on the animal.

E.     Always respects other people’s interest in seeing what you have seen by walking alongside the track, so as not to destroy it.

F.     “When in doubt, follow it out” (Tracking mantra)


VI.           Sense Meditation before Tracking (suggested by Barry Martin)

A.   Wide angle (180 or 135 degrees)

B.     Listen to silence (or what you might hear)

C.    Feeling (skin is the largest sense organ)—sun or wind

D.   Smell (water in the air, rain, aroma)

E.     Taste


VII.        Track Morphology (i.e., structure)


A.   Basic Vocabulary related to Track components

a.     Pay attention to the claws, toes, pads, and their shapes as well as the negative space between the toes and pad:



Figure 1. Courtesy of AB Tracking Team (December 2010)

B.      Numbering Toes

a.     The ability to distinguish left and right is an important consideration as well as helpful in determining the direction of travel:


Figure 2.  Courtesy of AB Tracking Team (December 2010)



VIII.     How to Distinguish between Canine (e.g., dog such as the Canis familiaris) and Feline (cat such as the Felis rufus) Family Tracks


In order to answer the question whose track is this: First, ask why you think it is a particular animal rather than is it a particular animal, by considering all of the following variables before deciding.  Since no single feature determines the family, you don’t want to jump to a premature conclusion (e.g., single factor reasoning).  Simply vote yes or no for the presence of absence of features.  Total the scores under yes/no.  The predominance of evidence will lead you to some degree of confidence in your decision.  For example, 8 out 10 points could be considered 80% confidence…




Canine (Coyote, Dog or Fox) Family


Feline (Bobcat, Cat, Mountain Lion) Family




Often present or show because they do not retract; “thick, blunt” in domestic dog


Absent, unless sliding or taking off



Metacarpal pad shape and size

Triangular and small (equal to toe pads)


Trapezoidal and large (enough to hold toe pads)



Metacarpal lobes

None present


Bilobed at top (if c shaped = cat) as well as trilobed at bottom (if m shaped = cat)



Negative space between pads

An X can be drawn without cutting palm pad; bigger than cat


An X will cut palm pad; smaller than dog



Pattern of pads

Symmetrical (mirror image)


Asymmetrical (cannot be folded onto self)



Shape of overall Track

Oval and narrow; slim






wedge shaped; inner are equal in size; heavy, deeper, and larger;


Tear-drop shaped; there is a leading toe; lighter, shallower, and smaller



Toes, outer

Point out


Point forward









Environmental Evidence

Scat, tubular, containing dates or fur


Scat, tubular with twisted end


SOURCES: Lecture, 3/12/10; 1/28/11; and 2/3/12 & “Track Comparisons” & Elbroch, p. 133





IX.             Track Identification of 7 Types of Animals Common to the Desert (links to each animal will follow after step-by-step framework of analysis is completed)


A.   Mammals

1.     American Badger (Taxidea taxus)—big front feet with long claws (longer distance between claw and pad)

2.     Hooded Skunk (Mephitis macroura), part of the weasel family

3.     Northern or North American Raccoon (Procyon lotor), human like


B.     Birds

1.     California Quail (Callipepla Californica)—three front toes, dots

2.     Greater Roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus), cuckoo family, K = inside of track

3.     Common Raven (Corvus corax)


C.    Canines

1.     Coyote (Canis latrans)

2.     Common Gray Fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus)

3.     Domestic Dog (Canis familiaris)

4.     Kit or Swift Fox (Vulpes velox), carniverous


D.   Deer

1.     Desert Big Horn Sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni), blocky print

2.     Mule Deer (Odocoileus hemionus), shaped for speed


E.     Felines

1.     Bobcat (Lynx rufus)

2.     Mountain Lion, aka cougar (Puma concolor)


F.     Lagomorphs

1.     Black-tailed Jackrabbit (Lepus californicus), precocial (having fur and vision and fend for themselves)

2.     Desert Cottontail (Sylvilagus audubonii), altricial, “meaning that they are born blind, hairless, and helpless,”


G.    Rats

1.     Desert Kangaroo Rat (dipodomys deserti)

2.     Desert Wood Rat (Neotoma lepida)

3.     Merriam’s Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys merriami)

4.     White-tailed Antelope Ground Squirrel (Ammospermophilus leucurus)—big hind feet



X.              Other Environmental Evidence

A.   Signs of holes

                                                    i.     Merlin’s Desert Holes

B.     Scrape marks

C.    Scat (a dichotomous key to identify many of the common desert animals is under development for the iPad and iPhone)

                                                    i.     Smell of urine (less commonly used in NA due to health risks: Raccoon scat, especially, is dangerous)

1.     Uric acid present in cat scat

2.     Leptospires are present (potential health risk)

                                                  ii.     Shape

1.     Ropy, twisted (coyote)

2.     Blunt ends with dark brick red and falls apart (raccoon)

3.     Segmentation

1.     Tootsie-roll like (bobcat)

                                                iii.     Size in diameter (illustrative examples below)

1.     Coffee bean size likely to be desert big horn

2.     3/8 inch (kit fox)

3.     1 or more inches (mountain lion)

                                                iv.     Clusters of scat

1.     Latrine, repeat business

2.     Springcakes, clusters within a deposit (Mule deer)

                                                  v.     Color as indication of age

1.     Shiny (new)

2.     Dusty, gray or chalky white (old)

                                                vi.     Contents and identification

1.     Bloodmeal (i.e., dried blood; greenish color is dried blood; rich in N=13.25%, P=1%, and K=.6%)

2.     Bonemeal (higher in P, between 12-13%)

3.     Bones = carnivore

4.     Dates (can be found in coyote, for example)

5.     Fur (can be found in coyote, for example)

6.     Mice (can be found in kit fox, for example)

7.     Seeds (can be found in raccoon, for example)

                                              vii.     Readings on Scat

1.     Dennis A. Danner, “Comparison of coyote and gray fox scat diameters,” The Journal of Wildlife Management 46 (no. 1, January 1982): 240-241.

2.     Dana M. Sanchez, Paul R. Krausman, Troy R. Livingston, and Philip S. Gipson, “Persistence of carnivore scat in the Sonoran Desert,” Wildlife Society Bulletin 32 (no. 2, 2004): 366-372.


D.   Vegetation

                                                    i.     Direction of cut and cleanness

1.     Clean and 45 degrees is rabbit

2.     Bushy and 90 degrees is woodrat


XI.            Gait Analysis based on Number of Prints and Patterns (as well as Rhythmic versus broken rhythms)


A.   Two (slower gait) prints or four (faster gait) prints

                                                    i.     Walk (2 prints), creates a wider trail; three types of walks:

1.     Under step (F before H)    

2.     Direct register (H on top of F), narrower track

3.     Over step (H before F)

                                                  ii.     Trot (2 prints), somewhat narrower track than walks

1.     Diagonal synchronization (opposite sizes moving together)

2.     Coyotes generally do a side-trot (where the H is all on one side of the centerline) due to longer distances to cover

                                                iii.     Lope (4 prints), H before F; closer to centerline of track

                                                iv.     Gallop (4 prints)—airborne (leaving nothing in between)

                                                  v.     Sequentially narrower width moving from walk to trot to lope and a gallop


C.    Some walk with interesting broken rhythms which include:

B.     Hopping, paired or angled front prints (F before h), four prints

C.    Skipping

D.   Loping, H before F (weasel family), four prints

E.     Pacing or two-beat lateral gait (e.g., giraffe and camel)

F.     Pronking/stotting

G.    Bounding (H before F because the rear is coming around the front; e.g., rats and rabbits with a Y-shape track, where the top of the Y is the rear feet and the bottom of the stem indicates direction of travel

XII.          Bird gaits

A.   Walk on their hind limbs; fly with their front limbs

B.     Walk on their toes = digitgrade

C.    Four toes rather than 5 for mammals

D.   Pad is the metatarsal; toe number 1 = hallux

E.     Anisodactyl, nisodactyl, and totipalmate

F.     Gaits

                                                    i.     Walk on the ground (game birds)

                                                  ii.     Hops, then probably a perching bird (missing toe #1)

G.    Scat

                                                    i.     Is from a bird, if white, uric cap is present (looks like toothpaste)

                                                  ii.     Is male, if J-shaped

                                                iii.     Is female, if oval

H.   Left foot = 0. Or Right foot = .0


XIII.      Glossary of Technical Terminology

Every field has its jargon, or technical vocabulary.  To engage fully in the community’s discourse, you need to understand what other people are saying; and you, of course, need to be able to describe what you are seeing:



Three toes in front, one behind (hallux)


Type of gait requiring synchronicity


Tracks on left and right of travel through the middle of the trail


Retractable (fox is semi-retractable); pointed, curved appendage at end of toe; made of keratin.  For catching and holding prey as well as climbing and digging; see also nails


Walks on toes for pouncing or jumping or stalking such as coyotes


Numbered 1 (thumb is inside), 2, 3 (middle and largest and most forward), 4 and 5 (outside)

Direct Register

Print on top of print (often/always hind on top of front track) in any gait (see overstep and understep)


Straight ahead, if toes in front of pads or Y-shape for rabbits


Measured at the bottom of the wall, equal to the true track.  May be flat (as in mule deer) or concave (as in desert big horn).


Bigger print if weight of animal is forward


Light delicate print (of a kit fox which is densely furred)


The metacarpal pad does not show separate palm or heel pads 


How an animal moves.  The continuous, unbroken rhythm of the animal’s movement; relative to its speed, which may be said to be slow, faster, or fast: i.e., a walk, trot, gallop as well as bounding, pacing, and pronking or stotting.  Lopes and hops and skips


Big toe (in birds)

Heel pad

Posterior part of metacarpal pad; may be triangular or trapezoidal


The foot at the posterior (rear, or back) of the animal


Toes 3 and 4




Order which includes hares and rabbits as well as pikas


Contrasted to small; raccoon has larger hind tracks while badgers have larger front feet.


Opposite the right side of the animal


Of the metacarpal pad

Metacarpal pad

Includes the palm (anterior) and heel (posterior); may be fused in the case of feline family


Flat appendage projecting from the toes; may be small stubs or large; see claw

Negative space

Space between the impression of toe pads and palm pads. Shapes can be C, H, or X.  X-shape is canine and is a pyramid shape.  C-shape around metacarpal pad is feline (e.g., bobcat) and a splayed-H is fox.


Toes 1 or 2 and 5

Overall track

Measured at top of outer wall; includes the floor and slope of wall


Hind ahead of front print; faster than an under step


Type of gait: giraffe


Cushions “characterized by thin, pigmented, keratinized, hairless epidermis covering subcutaneous, collagenous, and adipose tissue” (Wikipedia; corrected to American spelling).

Palm pad

Forward of the heel pad; separate metacarpal pads are fused together (36)


Walks on entire foot (such as humans, bear, raccoons, and skunks)

Pressure Ridge

Indicates direction of travel


Type of gait, box shaped


Posterior (hind or back) foot


Opposite the left side of animal


Disunited; orbital movement in socket (see Wikipedia’s Lead, leg)


“when old, scat turns pale gray to chalky white in color” (Scat 101)


Slim oval (front to rear) or round


May be Plantigrade, digitigrades, or unguligrade


Distance between the same foot (measuring from trailing edge to trailing edge or front edge to front edge); equal to the hip to shoulder length


Walking surface such as grass, mud, rock, sand or snow


Balance between ‘the right and left sides of track” (34); almost or not, in which case, asymmetrical

Toe pad

Tear-drop shape for cat family; can help you tell the direction of travel

Track length

From front most claw to back of metacarpal pad

Track width

Outer measure of animal’s movement

Trail width

Based on measuring the overall width from the outer toes of left foot to outer toes of right foot’s track or print; the outside of the tracks


Systematic coverage of an area; typically 1K along a line--“a sample strip of land used to monitor plant distribution, animal populations, etc., within a given area” (The Free Dictionary); divided into 250 M sections


Forward and backward

True track

Real width of a track based on the overall track minus floor’s width


Stance on knuckles or tips of the toes (such as mule deer or big horn sheep). The middle two toes

Outer toe

Shapes include wedge; may point forward or outward

Under step

Front foot is ahead of hind foot, but hind foot covers part of front (47-48). Slower than an overstep


Depth from substrate’s surface to the floor of track


Pairs=two toes pointing forward and two backward, especially birds

SOURCES: Lecture notes; pages references in parentheses are to Elbroch (2003)



XIV.      Researchable Questions


A.   Why does mammal scat turn white? (in progress; check back for link)

B.     Reliability and Validity of Transect Data (due to detection and collection sampling errors)

                                                    i.     Dana M. Sanchez et al., “Persistence of Carnivore Scat in the Sonoran Desert,” Wildlife Society Bulletin 32 (no. 2, 2004): 366-372.

                                                  ii.     Livingston, T. R., Gipson, P. S., Ballard, W. B., Sanchez, D. M. and Krausman, P. R., “Scat removal: a source of bias in feces-related studies,” Wildlife Society Bulletin 33 (No. 1, 2005): 172–178.

C.    Handedness in Animals (note that most DNA is right-spiral)


XV.         Volunteer Activities


A.   Transects for San Diego Tracking Team (conducted four times per year)

                                                    i.     Prior to 2006, 58 transects west of mountains

                                                  ii.     Grapevine Canyon, #59 (SDG&E northern power line, Sunrise PowerLink)

1.     Carnivores

                                                iii.     The Narrows (San Felipe Creek wildlife corridor), #60

1.     Big horn sheep crossing

2.     Carnivores

                                                iv.     Barrel Springs (OW SVRA), #61

1.     Badgers

                                                  v.     Imperial County, #62

                                                vi.     Tule-Eriogonum, #66


XVI.      Useful Technology:


1)     Notebook and Clipboard

2)     Digital Camera

3)     Tape Measure

4)     Knee Pads

5)     Latex Rubber Gloves

6)     Botanical Tweezers or wooden coffee sticks (from In-n-Out Burger)


XVII.     Interesting and Useful Websites:


1)     Nature Tracking (Jonah Evans, Texas)

a.     Excellent photos of mammal tracks

2)     Virtual Dirt Time (Dennis Deck, Portland, Oregon)

a.     “Track Identification” for beginners; photos of model tracks and gaits in different substrates

3)     How to Learn Animal Tracking

a.     Seven useful steps for beginners wishing to start out on their own

4)     Gary Ritchison, “Characters (sic) of the Feet,” Ornithology, BIO 554/754, Eastern Kentucky University

5)     Beartracker’s Animal Tracks Den (Kim A. Cabrera, Charter Member, ISPT)

a.     Good source for life history as well as track photographs

6)     Scatology 101 (Desert Exposure)

a.     Covers ten common animals: rabbit, mule deer, packrat, domestic cat, gray fox, bobcat, coyote, domestic dog, and cougar

b.     Use with caution due to possible “misleading generalizations and a few downright errors”

7)     Dick Newell’s Orange County Trackers

a.     Covers 5 considerations: shape, content, size, color, location and then canine, deer, feline, opossum, rabbit, raccoon, skunk, squirrel, toad, and woodrat in detail

8)     International Society of Professional Trackers

9), Towards a Worldwide Environmental Monitoring Network

a.     Provides Tracker Evaluations (1, easy; 2, moderate; and 3, hard)

10) Western Tracking Institute (Barry Martin)

a.     One of the most knowledgeable trackers in the US (scoring 102 in one evaluation)

11) Earth Skills, “Basic Tracking & Awareness” (Jim Lowery)

12) List of Qualified Trackers (Qualified Trackers Wiki, South Africa)

a.     Find additional qualified trackers

13) Anza-Borrego Tracking Team

a.     Regional tracking group, joined to the SDTT as a constituent team

14) San Diego Tracking Team (SDTT)

a.     Note that page is slow to load

b.     Bob Cat (Lynx rufus)

15) University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, “Animal Tracking” (39 superb color PP slides)


XVIII. Bibliography of Recommended Readings


1)     Mark Elbroch, Mammal Tracks & Sign: A Guide to North American Species (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2003). –The standard work on this subject.


2)     Diane K. Gibbons, Stories in Tracks and Signs: Reading the Clues That Animals Leave Behind (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2008).  –Covers some desert animals such as the coyote.


3)     Louis Liebenberg, The Art of Tracking: The Origin of Science.  Claremont, South Africa: New Africa Books, 2001.  –Out of print, but supposedly reissued in September 2011; see review.


4)     Barry Martin, Wildlife Survey: Pocket Guide to Key Species: Southern California. Western Tracking Institute, August 2011.  –Drawing upon 7 sources, this pamphlet is a convenient for the shirt- or pants-pocket, covering 22 common desert animals; would be more helpful if organized into types rather than an alphabetical listing, though.


XIX.        Field Notes (Saturday, 4 December 2010)


A.   7:30 AM meet at flagpole of A-B State Park Visitors Center and car pool to Palm Canyon wash, under partially cloudy skies; grew cooler with occasion sunny patches

                                                    i.     Saw a Cooper’s hawk and several (called a charm, a troubling, or a hover of) hummingbirds (probably Costa’s)

                                                  ii.     Presence of hawk may reduce hummingbird “nest predation” according to Harold G. Greeney and Susan M. Wethington (2009)

B.     Assigned to “expert group” which we named the Roadrunners

C.    Rotated among facilitators who showed us different scenarios

D.   Photographs:

                                                    i.     Quail Tracks

                                                  ii.     Chuparosa cut by wood rats

XX.          Field Notes (Saturday and Sunday 29-30 January 2011)

A.   7:30 meeting at flagpole

B.     Photographs

                                                    i.     Demonstrations

                                                  ii.     Tracks

XXI.        Field Notes (Saturday, 4 February 2012)

A.   8AM in Plum Canyon parking lot; clear, light wind

B.     8:30AM in Grapevine Canyon (doing part of transect at 33 09.156N/116 28.609W, 2389 feet); 52 degrees in roadway

C.    Sense meditation by Barry Martin

D.   See online photos



Updated: 6 February 2012