B. ANIMAL TRACKS IN THE SAND

Racoon (Pacer)
Raccoon
(Pacer)
Rabbit (Galloper)
Rabbit
(Galloper)

Bobcat
(Diagonal walker) Deer (Diagonal walker)
Deer
(Diagonal walker)

Opossum
Opossum
(Pacer)




Introduction

By searching the surface of the sand for tracks, you can not only find evidence of animals that live in scrub, but you can also become more aware of how animals move and behave. In addition, tracking can help students feel more connected with wildlife—which often makes them better trackers! To be a good tracker, you must be able to mix the animal evidence you find with a little imagination. Tracks help bring the elusive animal a bit closer, but also make it more mysterious. Students are often so intrigued by the pattern of the track, the weight of the animal pressing into the earth, and the way it pushes its individual toes and pads or nails into the sand, that they naturally rise to the next level and begin asking questions. Where did the animal go? What was it looking for? How long ago did the animal pass by? What was it running from?

Tracking is one of the oldest human skills. We have an inborn capacity to learn to interpret tracks. Throughout history, our ability to envision an animal’s life and anticipate how that animal may respond to drought, heavy wind and rain, threats from other animals, or being followed have made humans good hunters. The best modern trackers, such as the native people of the Kalahari Desert in southwest Africa, make a conscious effort to empathize with the animal they are tracking. They know what resources are important to the animal, who its natural enemies are, and how it interacts with other animal species. In a sense, they try to become the animal. For example, to try to think like a raccoon, you might look at its tracks and imagine the following scenario: "I am a raccoon. I cross the campground tonight to see if I can find chicken bones or fish heads in the trash can. One of the campers has a big dog that barks and lunges at me. Although it’s tied up, the dog scares me and I run as fast as I can to the nearest clump of palmettos to hide." Of course, raccoons don’t think in words, but they do follow adaptive sequences like the one above. Students can often learn more about how an animal lives by following its tracks than by watching a documentary on the species. Tracking makes the learning experience a personal one and, most likely, one that students are more likely to remember.

The best time to look for tracks is after a heavy rain, once animals have had time to move around on the damp sand. After a rain, tracks often keep their shape for two to three days--or even longer. You will find tracks more easily during mornings or afternoons when the angle of sunlight creates shadows in the tracks. Finding tracks can be difficult when the sun is directly overhead at mid-day. Tracks are almost impossible to find or identify during windy days when sand quickly covers them up.

You can often identify an animal by examining a single track, but if you investigate several of the animal’s tracks, you can more positively identify the kind of animal that made them. Search for other clues animals may leave behind such as scat, nests, burrows and dens, evidence of digging or chewing, or even clumps of fur or feathers.

Make a habit of regularly checking sandy areas around your school for tracks. Animal activity changes throughout the year, and, sometimes, even week to week! Raccoon and deer tracks are usually fairly abundant in scrub any time of year, while tracks of reptiles, such as snakes, sand skinks, and gopher tortoises are more frequently seen during hot weather.

Part of the fun of tracking is getting to know an individual animal’s habits and finding out how predictable that animal can be. Some animals, such as foxes, bobcats and rabbits have territories, or home ranges where they live and which they patrol regularly. Their fresh tracks can be found in the same areas almost everyday.

Tracks can also be very mysterious and unpredictable. When you visit scrub sites with your students, you will almost always find a puzzling track. Was that track made by a very large beetle or a very small lizard? What bird track is that, and why did it land in the sand, hop three paces, then fly away? Was that furrow made by a caterpillar? These unpredictable encounters and questions can lead to the best kind of learning. Encourage your students to consider how they can turn their questions into a research project---then carry through with the research! Although you may not know the outcome of such a project, you will be giving your students the opportunity to see the scientific process in action and deal with their own spontaneous interests.

Animal tracks are fun to find, but they can also be an important part of biological research. A mammalogist can use animal tracks to help estimate mammal populations within a defined area. Several times throughout the year, a scientist counts how many mammal crossings he sees within designated areas of his study site. This helps show what species of animals are present and gives a very general idea about how abundant they are. Scientists also use tracks to show the boundaries of an animal’s territory. Knowing the size of an animal’s territory helps biologists figure out how much habitat must be preserved to protect a species of animal. Some animals, such as bobcats, make tracks that are different (to the expert eye!) in tiny ways from one individual to another. A dedicated biologist can then study the individual lives of these animals.

Background Information
While wet sand holds the shape of a track particularly well, dry sand can also provide clues about the animal that left the track. Be aware of the following characteristics when identifying tracks in both wet and dry sand:


Size and shape

  • Was the track made by an animal with big feet or small feet?
  • Does the animal have hooves? Five long toes? Four round toes?
  • Do you see claw marks?

Track pattern

  • What is the length of the animal’s stride (distance between two set of tracks or steps)
  • Are tracks of the front and back feet the same size and shape?
  • Does the animal register when it walks (step on their own footprint)? If an animal direct registers, one track is directly over another and the two appear as one track. (Bobcats often direct register.) When an animal indirect registers, a track either overlaps another one or is very close. (Foxes and coyotes indirect register.)

Track trail
What is the animal’s gait? (how an animal moves its legs and the pattern left by a series of tracks)

  • Gallopers push off with their back feet, place their forefeet down one before the other, and then swing their back feet up in front of the forefeet tracks. Rabbits are gallopers.
  • Pacers move the front and back foot on one side of the body at the same time and then move the feet of the other side. Bears, opossums, and raccoons are pacers.
  • Diagonal walkers leave a straight line of tracks and move feet on opposite sides of its body at the same time (for example: left front foot and right back foot) Bobcats, deer, and foxes are diagonal walkers.
  • Hopping birds leave pairs of tracks. Walking birds leave a line of single tracks. Florida scrub-jays usually hop, but will run if they need to move very fast on the ground. Quail and doves walk.

    Be aware of other outstanding features such as a tail drag. Don’t be fooled by patterns made by sticks and pine needles being tossed around by the wind or by marks created by dew or rain dripping off leaves and power lines. Be alert to those enterprising students who make mystery marks in the sand with knuckles, fingers, and sticks!

The following books are good sources of information on tracking:

  • Brown, Tom. 1983. Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Nature Observation
  • Headstrom, Richard. 1971. Identifying Animal Tracks, Mammals, Birds and Other Animals of the Eastern United States.
  • Murie, Olaus J. 1974. A Field Guide to Animal Tracks (Peterson Field Guide series).
  • Stokes, Donald and Lillian Stokes. 1984. A Guide to Animal Tracking and Behavior.
Sand Skink

The sand skink is the only sand-swimming lizard in North America. As far as anybody knows, the sand skink lives only in central Florida, on the Lake Wales Ridge and north into the Ocala National Forest. All scrub biologists look for the track of the sand skink--a smooth and regular series of curves caused by the skink swimming just underneath the surface. Because it moves so close to the surface, the skink displaces sand on both sides of its body. The sand then collapses behind the skink, leaving a curved groove. Wandering ant lions also move just under the surface of the sand. Ant lions can make very wavy tracks sometimes, but do not make the constant, curving tracks made by a swimming sand skink. (For more information about sand skinks.)

A. Physical Properties of Sand     I.A.1     I.A.3
B. Animal Tracks in the Sand     I.B.1
C. Glossary     D. Questions for Student Evaluation