Curious Nature: Identifying cat tracks in Colorado
Walking Mountains Science Center
While you might happen upon one of Colorado’s wild cats out on the trail, it is more likely you will come across the tracks or signs of one of these incredible creatures. Mountain lions (Puma concolor), Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) and bobcats (Lynx rufus) each prefer different habitats and hunt different prey. Knowing their natural history may help you figure out who’s who when you see tracks.
The three cats range in size from the medium-sized bobcat and lynx to the large mountain lion. In all three species, the males are larger than females. Bobcats weigh 9 to 40 pounds with an average length of 32 inches. Canada lynx weigh 11 to 37 pounds with an average length of 34 inches. Both are about twice the weight of a domestic house cat. Mountain lions weigh over 100 pounds and are 5-9 feet in length.
Habitat and prey
Habitat may be one of your first clues to finding out who was walking through the woods or meadows. In the winter, mountain lions follow their primary prey, deer and elk, to lower elevations or south-facing slopes where the snow is thinner.
The smaller lynx prefers smaller prey: primarily the snowshoe hare. Lynx inhabit the higher mountains where the deep snow and thick cover also provide prime habitat for snowshoe hare. The bobcat is less elusive than its relative the lynx. Bobcats live in a wider range of habitats in part because they will eat anything they can catch from rabbits and hares to mice and squirrels.
Feline or canine?
Dog or cat? Most people have an easy time choosing their preference, but when it comes to looking at tracks there are a few tricks to help you tell the difference. Cats have retractable claws so when looking at tracks, look for the presence or absence of claws to tell Rover from Felix. Paw shape can also help differentiate species as felines tend to have a rounder shaped paw whereas canines have a more elongated paw.
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Once you know you’ve found a feline and not a canine the size of the track can help identify the species. An adult mountain lion will make a track 3 to 5 inches wide and a longer stride of 32 to 44 inches long. Compare this to the smaller bobcat’s track size of 1 ¾ to 2 ¼ inches with a stride of about 24 inches. A lynx falls in the middle with its track being 3 ¾ to 4 ¾ inches with a stride length of 24 to 33 inches.
Of course, all these numbers will vary depending on the size of the animal, how it is moving, as well as the terrain and substrate the track is made in.
Tracks generally appear bigger in snow, especially a lynx’s track. Lynx have large paws for their size as they grow an incredible amount of fur around their feet. This not only helps keep their toes warm but also helps their paws act as snowshoes allowing easier and faster movement in deep snow. In snow, a lynx track can be as large as a mountain lion’s but the pad imprints will be lighter and smaller if recognizable at all.
Whether you are hiking, snowshoeing or skiing, keep your eyes out for tracks and clues of whose path you may have crossed. Looking at the shape, size, and pattern of the tracks can help you identify it. If you want to take a picture to save for later remember to add in a common object for scale like a water bottle or chapstick. It is always hard to remember just how big that cat track you saw was!
Hannah Fake is a winter naturalist at Walking Mountains Science Center. While Hannah is a dog person she would still be very excited to spot a wild cat or see tracks in the mountains.