How to identify animal footprint tracks

Updated February 21, 2017

When out in the wilderness, whether on vacation or just out for a short hike, it's a good idea to know what animals are in the neighbourhood. The best way to do this is to learn how to identify animal tracks. This is a valuable skill that can keep you safe from larger animals such as bears or mountain lions, or enhance your success in hunting other game. All animal tracks are different, and will have subtle features that once you learn will help you identify the animals.

Measure the width and length of the track. This will give you an estimation of the animal's size. A paw print with a width of 5 inches or greater indicates a very large cat, close to 90.7 Kilogram. A large depression formed by the heel pad indicates that the animal could be very large as well.

Notice the toes. A mountain lion will have four toes of equal size, round shaped, arranged 2 inches in front of the heel pad, and spaced apart by an inch. Typically, claw marks won't be visible on the toe-tips, unless the animal is hunting. If you see a fresh track with claw impressions, this is a good indication that a mountain lion is hunting or has recently been stalking in the area.

Identify the front and rear heel pads. A mountain lion, and most of the cat family, has a triangular heel pad without a rear cleft. A rear cleft indicates a bobcat. The front heel pad will be 50 per cent larger than the rear, and the rear will have a more defined triangular shaped heel pad, whereas the front heel pad will appear somewhat triangular, but much wider.

Identify the toes. A black bear or grizzly bear will have five toes, with a claw impression visible above each toe. The toes will be spaced about 1/2 inch to 1 inch apart, depending on the bear's size, and appear to angle over the heel pad.

Identify the rear heel pad. The rear heel pad for a bear is very large, bigger than an average human hand, and is recognisable by a large, upside-down triangular shape.

Identify the front heel pad. The front heel pad will look like a dome-shaped ball an inch under the toes, and have a smaller round impression about 2 inches below it.

Look at nearby trees to see any signs of bears marking their territory. Trees may have hair embedded in the bark from bears rubbing on the trees, or large claw marks from bears scratching. If you see fresh tracks, along with these signs, there may be a bear very close by.

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