Friday, February 27, 2009

Cat vs. Gray Fox

I thought I'd respond to Vivian's off-blog comment, relating to Quabbin
2/25/09. She felt that photo #2 was more consistent with gray fox
because the metacarpal (palm) pad seemed small relative to toe area, and
because of the large negative space between toes and palm pad.

Those observations are indeed what make me consider gray fox. I have to
admit here that I have very little experience tracking gray fox, but
look at the photo above. This was from a trail of bobcat tracks seen on
2/7/09, in which some tracks showed the classic robust trapezoidal palm
pad and others, like the one above, had a more delicate looking palm
pad. This track really isn't very different from photo #2 on 2/25/09.

That said, Vivian could be right. Maybe it is gray fox. I go back and
forth on this. Tracking conditions were not ideal that day, and I
couldn't find any prints in that trail of small, cat-like tracks that I
could hang my hat on. So the answer is that you often cannot decide
based on one track....unless you have a beautiful, crisp, unambiguous print.

If you are new to tracking, a good exercise would be to spend a lot of
time tracking one species, observing how the tracks look in different
substrates (wet snow, powdery snow, deep snow, shallow snow, mud, sand),
and how fresh tracks look relative to old ones. Observe how tracks vary
from one to the next, within the same trail, in the same substrate, and
the same exposure to weather. Sometimes all the pads register clearly,
sometimes certain pads register partially or not at all.

Follow a single animal through the woods, where tracks are protected by
the forest canopy from sun and wind, and then out onto an open field,
where prints are exposed to the elements. Observe how quickly tracks
age when more exposed, and how they can even change to look like those
of a different species. You might see interesting phenomena, such as
nice coyote tracks in side trot (a 2-2 pattern) in the woods suddenly
morphing into 2-2 bounding fisher tracks when they emerge onto a wind
swept field.

And, while you're doing all this, think about how difficult it is to age
tracks, and whether you believe those who think they can age them down
to the hour, basing all sorts of interesting conclusions about animal
behavior on that "data".

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