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Toe Know-How.

Wild animals are instinctively wary of people, and this is especially true in the camp setting where they are greeted by campers brimming with noisy, inquisitive excitement. Examining the signs animals leave behind is one way to study them without disturbing the animal. Making plaster of paris animal track casts is a classic camp activity that was presented in the September/October issue of Camping Magazine. Now that you've collected all those track casts, what can you learn from them?

Identifying Track Patterns

For an introductory lesson, explain to campers that in addition to the shape of the foot, the pattern of the tracks is an important indicator of what type of animal made those interesting prints. While birds, reptiles, and amphibians may leave tracks, mammals will probably make up the majority of the tracks found. Field guides will help in identifying tracks and explaining other characteristics of the animals who made the tracks.

Diagonal walkers

Cats, dogs, and hoofed animals are called diagonal walkers. Demonstrate this by asking campers to get down on all fours. Their hands are their front feet, and their knees are their rear feet. To be a diagonal walker move the left front foot and the right rear foot forward at the same time. Now move the right front foot and the left rear foot forward.


Wide-bodied animals such as pines, raccoons, opossums, and beavers are pacers, producing a waddling gate when walking. The left front track print is generally directly next to the right rear print. To demonstrate this, campers will move their right front and right rear feet at the same time and then their left front and rear feet.


Most rodents and the rabbits are hoppers. They jump ahead with their rear feet, landing on their front feet, and then pulling their rear feet forward on either side the front feet to push off again. Are any of the campers gymnasts? They may be able to demonstrate a rabbit hop.


The weasel family is large and includes skunks, otters, and badgers. Most members of this family are bounders, leaving a track pattern that shows the right and left front and rear prints side by side. To demonstrate this, campers will lunge both their front feet forward at the same time and then quickly bring their rear feet up just behind the front feet.

Distinguishing Track Prints

Now ask campers to sort track molds or purchased models into groups by their most obvious characteristics.

* Hoofed mammals: Deer and elk have a two "toed" track. To distinguish the 7 hoof prints, the size of the prints is a key. Deer prints measure 1 1/4-to-3 1/2inches long and elk from 3 1/8 to 4 7/8-inches long.

* Dogs and cats: Dog and cat track prints show four toes on the front and rear feet. Commonly found cat tracks may be from a domestic cat or bobcat. The cat track will be slightly asymmetrical and show no claw marks. The bobcat, coyote, and fox generally direct-register their tracks at a walk. This means the hind footprint is directly on top of the front footprint. Domestic dogs do not direct-register, leaving a pattern that is slightly offset. Wild members of the dog family include coyotes, foxes, and wolves. Their track will usually show a claw mark.

* Rabbits: Their tracks show four front and rear toes and sometimes claws are indicated in the print. Their most distinctive feature is their much longer rear feet.

* Rodents: Chipmunks, mice, squirrels, beavers, and porcupines are all rodents. Rodent tracks show four front toes and five rear toes in a fan-like pattern.

* Weasels: Members of the weasel family leave tracks with five clawed toes both on the front and rear. The common members such as the skunk, otter, and badger have very specialized feet for the habitats they live in and the food they eat.

* Raccoons and opossums: Five front and rear toes make these animal tracks identifiable. The raccoon's tracks show elongated toes on all feet. In the front, the toes are open and hand-like. On the hind, the foot pad area is longer than the toes. The opossum leaves a hand-like track with its rear feet. The opposable "thumb" is distinctive. The front also has elongated toes, but the track is more fan like. With opossum prints, there is often a tail mark running between the tracks.

Creating Field Guides

After the campers have sorted the models, they might like to create their own field guides before going out into the field to look for more tracks. Several excellent resources are available to use as references, including:

* Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Sign by Paul Rezendes, Camden House Publishing, Inc.

* The Nature Specialist by Lenore Hendler Miller, American Camping Association

* Animal Tracks series from Mountaineer Books

Teaching your campers to identify animal tracks and track patterns provides them with a fun learning opportunity to study the wildlife within and around camp and helps them develop a deeper appreciation for nature.

Virginia Bourdeau, CCD, is a 4-H extension educator at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. She is a former member of the Camping Magazine Editorial Advisory Board.

To learn how to make animal track plaster casts and other uses for them, read "Plaster Casts of Animal Tracks Revisited" in the September/October issue of Camping Magazine.

"Programming" is open to anyone who has ideas or activities to share. Please submit your article to: "Programming," Camping Magazine, 5000 State Road 67 North, Martinsville, IN 46151-7902, or e-mail

Where to Find Track Casts

Don't have molds or cards of animal tracks available to use for this exercise? You can purchase sets of polyurethane track replicas and other supplies from several nature companies:

* Acorn Naturalist: carries track replicas and molds, as well as animal track and mammal guide books; to order, call 800-422-8886

* Nature Watch: offers master track molds that allow you to make track casts, animal track and mammal guides, track replicas, and animal track playing cards to help campers identify animal tracks; to order, call 800-228-5816 or visit
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Article Details
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Author:Bourdeau, Virginia
Publication:Camping Magazine
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2000
Previous Article:Families Enjoying the Outdoors.
Next Article:A View from the Woods.

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