Adventure column

Some of the best times to identify wildlife tracks are right after a fresh snow or in mud and sand.

As you explore Northern New Mexico’s melting and thawing landscapes this winter, you may notice unique tracks and signs left by wild creatures.

You can miss all kinds of interesting information if you don’t know what to look for.

Some of the best times to identify wildlife tracks are right after a fresh snow, along a muddy trail or on a sandbar. Indentations are often crisp in new snow or mud, as if they were created by cookie cutters.

If you wander down a trail with the right conditions, you may notice the prints of roaming carnivores. The distinctions between species are not all obvious, but you can start by determining whether you might be looking at canid or felid tracks.

Felids have retractable claws, a unique evolutionary characteristic. That feature also will help in identifying which carnivore tracks you see. If you notice a track with a back pad and four toe marks but an absence of claws at the end, there is a good chance you are looking at a felid track. Their claws typically only come out for sharpening, climbing and hunting, and rarely register when felids leave prints.

If you narrow your identification to that point, you can start to eliminate other possibilities. There are three species of wildcats in Northern New Mexico, including mountain lions, bobcats and Canadian lynx. The latter rarely wander across the border from Colorado, so you can narrow your options further.

Bobcat tracks will roughly measure between 1½ and 2½ inches in length, while cougar tracks will measure between 2¾ and 4¼ inches in length. The tracks of roaming house cats are smaller than both, like little silver dollars. If it is a cougar, don’t worry. They are unlikely to bother you, but if you are alone, you can always wander in a different direction.

Canid nails are set in place, and there is a good chance they will leave distinct nail marks along the tips of their toe pad indentations. This can depend on substrate, tack, age and species; however, this bit of information will guide you toward identifying a canid sign.

In Northern New Mexico, it is most likely a gray fox or coyote, but there is a chance it can belong to a red fox.

If you wander into the grasslands and deserts of Eastern New Mexico, you could even come across small swift or kit fox tracks, usually ranging in length from 1 to 1¾ inches. These are the smallest of the canid tracks in the state, since these little foxes are only about the size of a Chihuahua.

If you wander to the southwest corner of the state, in Gila country, you may come across Mexican wolf tracks. Coyote tracks will range in length from 2¼ to 3½ inches, while a Mexican wolf track will average 3½ to 4½ inches.

The distinction between gray fox, red fox and coyotes can be tough, but remember to use the size and location of the track in the process of elimination. Some of the larger canid tracks can easily be confused with domestic dogs, but your proximity to other human activity is one hint whether you are looking at wild or domestic animal tracks.

These are just some of the basics in your track identification toolkit. There are a whole range of other species and characteristics to consider while you are out in New Mexico’s wild country. This information will help get you started.

Kyle Shaney is an assistant professor in the Department of Forestry at New Mexico Highlands University.

(1) comment

William Bowen

So great to learn more practical tips to enjoy the nature we are so fortunate to have around us. Keep more like this coming, please!

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