Tracking a feral – would you get it right?

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Identifying feral animal tracks in the sand is a key skill for a field ecologist, but can everyone do it accurately?

This post provides a brief summary of the key features to look for when next attempting to correctly identify some feral predator tracks. The three species looked at here are dogs (Canis lupus), foxes (Vulpes vulpes) and cats (Felis catus) and the track pattern will be the same irrespective of the animal being domestic, stray or feral.

Dogs, foxes and cats all contain four toe pads that make contact with the ground. This is a factor that can be used to differentiate feral animals from those of the five fingered native species such as quoll, possum, kangaroo and wallaby. The footpad placement of feral fauna is also quite different to native fauna with each rear paw placed just next to or in some cases on top of the previously placed front paw. This produces a distinctively linear track in the sand, with the prints almost lining up perfectly, however, narrowing this down to the three most commonly observed feral predator tracks requires a bit more of an understanding about the differences between each of these species. The key variables to determine which species is making the track are the overall track shape, size, foot placement when walking, the presence or absence of claws in the track and the general shape and arrangement of each toe and foot pad. In general, dog tracks are larger than fox tracks, however, this can vary (i.e. a jack russell’s track will be much smaller than a fox track, however, a doberman print may be larger than fox pups). Like all identification methods size is only one variable.

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Representation of a dog (left), fox (centre) and cat (right) prints including general paw placement when walking in a straight line

Fox and dog prints can be distinguished from one another by the shape, toe nail placement and pad placement – these factors in combination should be used together to correctly identify the species. All tracks will appear larger than they actually are in soft sand, so always take the substrate into consideration when analysing tracks. Generally a fox print is more oval in shape than a dog print and the paws are placed closer to one another while walking almost in a straight line (compared to a dog which usually has less overlap between prints). A fox’s first and last toe nail point more inwards towards the central toes compared to a dog whose point slightly outwards. A fox’s two central toe pads and outer toe pads can be separated by a straight line as represented by the red line in the figure above, whereas, this is not possible with a dog. However, in soft sand this is difficult to determine as the sand will not leave a distinct pad outline. In these conditions a fox print will usually produce a very distinctive diamond shape, due to the close proximity of the second and third toe pad in foxes, which can also be used for identification. Finally there is usually a much larger gap between the central pad and the two middle toe pads, compared to the dog where the gap is much smaller.

Cat toe pads are arranged almost in a semi circle in front of the large central pad. This produces a more circular shape to the print and the toe pads appear much more distinctive from the central pad. Cats have retractable claws, so there is usually no sign of a claw in the print – this is a key feature in differentiating canid prints from cats prints (i.e. if the tracks contain claws it is almost certainly not cat). Cat tracks are significantly smaller than wild dogs and usually, but not always, slightly smaller than domestic dog and fox. Just remember some feral cats can become quite large and foxes can also be quite small at times, so size isn’t always the best determining factor between these species.

Despite being armed with the above information track identification can still be difficult, usually because tracks are rarely perfect. This is where field experience is important as well as analysing other factors such as scats, diggings, foraging activity, scent and the overall gait of the animal in order to assist in a positive identification. Environmental conditions can also make it difficult to correctly identify fauna tracks in the field particularly if the tracks are old, left in very soft sand or exposed to wind and rain.

1080 and tracks

Thanks to Andrew Hide for preparing this post 

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