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Vail Curious Nature: Tracks help us travel back in time

Brian Morgan
Special to the Daily
Vail, CO Colorado
Brian Morgan is a graduate fellow in natural science education at the Vail Valley-based Gore Range Natural Science School
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VAIL, Colorado – First tracks on a Vail Valley powder day, train tracks leading up to Tennessee Pass, huge erratic boulders strewn across Cross Creek Valley – all of these give us glimpse into the past. Whether it is the lucky skier, the early settlers of our region or the massive glaciers that carved the Rocky Mountains, we can learn from the tracks left behind.

Let’s imagine you walk outside on a crystal clear morning and you see some dog tracks on your driveway. Did Bob let his Jack Russell terrier do his business in your yard again or was there a visitor from the forest last night? We can look at tracks in order to travel back into the dead of night to solve this mystery.

When attempting to identify tracks in the snow there are four characteristics to consider and naturalists call these the four Ps – purpose, place, pattern and print. Those dog tracks in your driveway will require you to consider the purpose of the animal.

With plenty of free food from their owners, domestic dogs can stagger all over sniffing everything that catches their interest. A fox on the other hand needs to conserve energy and will often walk in deliberate paths and straight lines while scanning the forest for prey. When you are out following tracks, imagine the story the set of tracks is telling.

Now let’s imagine you are out on a snowshoe hike up one of the Gore Range’s many drainages. You come across a rather large track crossing your path, it looks fresh. Should you be concerned? Might it be a mountain lion?

To reassure your racing mind you can use some facts about the place that you find the track. In the winter, many animals migrate or hibernate so you can eliminate the possibility that they left tracks for you to see.

Elk and deer migrate to south facing slopes at lower elevations to be warmed by the sun and avoid deep snow. Mountain lions will move also, following their prey. So maybe you’re looking at a lynx track instead. A lynx track will be most likely be found in fir-spruce forests at elevations of 9,000 to 11,000 feet.

The print of a lynx is rather large, specially adapted to the deep snow that blankets its habitat. To make a positive identification, you will need to take a close look at the finer details of the print. Cats are one of the few families of mammals with retractable claws. We don’t have hyenas, mongooses or wolverines in Colorado, so you can be sure that a clawless track came from a cat and not a coyote.

These are just two of many scenarios you can encounter when examining tracks. For identifying other animals it is very helpful to classify the pattern into one of four categories. First, the animals we have already discussed – elk, coyotes and lynx – are steppers. When walking, these animals conserve energy by placing their rear feet in the footprints of their front foot.

Second, raccoons, bears, porcupines, and beavers are all examples of waddlers. These animals move both feet on the same side at the same time, leaving sweeping marks as they drag their bodies through the snow.

The last two groups of animals are the hoppers and the bounders. They travel in a similar manner, but the difference is hoppers land with their back feet ahead of their front feet. Hoppers include squirrels and hares. Bounders include weasels and also any steppers that happen to be running at full speed.

I encourage you to use the four Ps of tracking and a good field guide this winter to investigate the secret lives of animals. We seldom see some of these wild creatures, but they let us enter into their world with every step they take in the snow. Recreate their nightly ritual of sniffing and stalking, shivering and hiding, and you might find yourself more connected to the hardships they face surviving the season.

The Gore Range Natural Science School’s Curious Nature column appears Mondays in the Vail Daily and on http://www.vaildaily.com. Brian Morgan is a graduate fellow in natural science education at the Gore Range Natural Science School, where he shares his passion for the outdoors and teaching children and adults how to solve the mysteries left by animal tracks. http://www.gorerange.org


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