Wildlife Tracking Explained
What is Wildlife Tracking/Trailing?
How do you know what animals inhabit a particular area, what their patterns of movement are, where they go for food and to rest, and how they interact with the environment around them? One answer is by learning to identify and follow wildlife tracks, a skill that may take years to master but one that will reveal fascinating details even to beginners.
Tracking entails recognizing individual species, what type of gait they were using, what they were doing (feeding, running from danger, etc.), when they were in the area (aging tracks), and where they might be now. Trailing builds on tracking and looks for additional signs (browsed plants, broken limbs/twigs, etc.) to follow an animal's path and determine if possible where they are at present.
Why is it Important?
Most wild animals are secretive, nocturnal, or simply difficult to observe in the wild. Wildlife tracking skills can provide an incredible window into the behavior of animal species and enable the observer to have a far greater understanding not only of that animal, but how it interacts with and depends upon the other fauna and flora around it. Specifically, wildlife tracking/trailing includes the ability to:
- Recognize animal tracks by species (and sometimes male/female)
- Interpret the type of gait/movement pattern
- Deduce animal behavior through track and sign patterns
- Age tracks and sign found in the field
- Predict animal movement and activity on a given landscape
- Follow an animal trail via tracks and sign through types of substrates/habitats
- Determine whether the animal is solitary or moving in a pack, herd, or family unit
- Recognize animal interactions and predation sites
- Use tracks and sign to locate and view more wildlife for help with scientific stuidies, to improve hunting capabilities, or simply for pleasure
What the programs will teach you...
You will learn the fundamentals for identifying tracks and how to use "primary" and "secondary" perception to analyze what you are seeing in the field. A scientific approach will be utilized that will teach you to describe specific characteristics and "what you see" to arrive at a conclusion rather than guessing or relying primarily on intuition.
Also, the ability to recognize key features and look for patterns that are characteristic of taxonimic families (in addition to individual species) will be covered, so that you can take what you have learned on the expedition and use that when you return home to identify other related species that live in your area. This will enable you to apply your improved tracking knowledge to any natural habitat you encounter in the future, thus beginning a lifelong journey in expanding your knowledge and awareness and forging a deeper connection to the natural world.
Over the last few years, wildlife tracking has garnered interest from the scientific community and now there are some excellent resources available to assist you in learning this skill. Numerous books, organizations, websites, and mobile apps exist that teach the fundamentals of tracking and detail the specific characteristics for the animals in your area. Here are some some places to start:
A number of excellent tracking books have been published that can be broken down into two main categories: guide books that detail the tracks and sign by species, and those that deal with the philosophy of tracking as part of nature observation.
- Field Guide to Animal Tracks and Scat of California, another excellent source that is applicable to the entire American Southwest.
- Wildlife of the Pacific Northwest: Tracking and Identifying Mammals, Birds, Reptiles, Amphibians, and Invertebrates, a comprehensive guide book that goes beyond just mammals and is conveniently organized so that it groups all sign (tracks, scat, etc.) together for each species
- Animal Tracking Basics, a great starting point for learning how to approach the art of tracking, how to increase your awareness in looking for animal sign, and how to utilize mapping and journaling.
- Tom Brown's Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking, a classic work that delves into the essence of tracking and using all 5 senses to increase one's awareness in nature.
A great way to learn tracking without having to carry a heavy guide book into the field each time is by downloading a tracking app onto your smart phone. iTrack Wildlife is a great app for North America that is available for both iOS and Android (an Africa version will also be coming out soon).
Cybertracker is an organization that was initially created in Africa to validate the competency of wildlife trackers working on conservation projects. It has evolved over time and is now represented in several continents including North America, offering various levels of certification exams. These two day events are a excellent way to measure your tracking abilities as well as being a great learning experience. You can learn more by looking at the following links:
There are numerous other websites that contain a wealth of information related to tracking and trailing. Here are a few good examples:
- CyberTracker.org, explains the history of the organization and the certification process, and also has sections on the role of tracking historically (and in modern times) and on spoor identification.
- TrackerCertification.com, is an organization based in North America that administers CyberTracker evaluations
- NatureTracking.com, an excellent resource compiled by the CyberTracker evaluator who also designed the iTrack Wildlife mobile app. It has photos of hundreds of tracks including those that are used as questions during CyberTracker evaluations and other valuable information.
- iNaturalist.org North American Animal Tracking Database, contains thousands of track records for close to five hundred species along with comments from highly skilled trackers.