March 11, 2023

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Tracking Mother Nature: Prominent Paw Prints

While on a walk through nature, how thoroughly did you look at tracks on the ground? What differences could you see? And what conclusions could you draw about the animal that left the footprint?

By Stefanie Rach

The first clues are given by the shape: A small hoofprint belongs to an antelope or a warthog, a very large hoofprint to a giraffe. A paw print could be a lion, a hyena, a genet. And a huge round stamper was left by an elephant.

Let’s take a closer look at the paw print. If the pad has three lobes, the print belongs to someone from the feline family. Lions have the biggest paws, followed by leopards. Every cat, caracal, serval, wildcat, has its very own paw print. When a lion strides majestically, it flicks its paw a little with each step. In loose sand, you can see this in the track, which is slightly smudged on one side. Cheetahs cannot retract their claws and therefore there is a small dot above each toe print where the claw pressed into the ground.

Genets look very cat-like, but they are not real felines. And you can also see this in their paw prints: these do not have the three lobes. In fact, the small paw prints of the genet resemble those of civets and mongooses – to which the genet is related. However, if you are looking for wild dogs, look for a paw print with three lobes on the pads. The same applies to all related animals such as jackals or foxes.

And what about hyenas? There is a persistent rumour that hyenas are related to dogs. In fact, however, they are more closely related to cats than to dogs, but ultimately form their own family, to which different species belong. In this respect, their paw prints are not similar to those of either dogs or cats.

So you can see that tracking is not just the ability to assign a certain track to an animal. The specific behaviour of the animals also plays a role, as does their ancestry: at a glance, one immediately recognises the close relationship between lion and leopard or wild dog and black-backed jackal. Tracking tells the story of evolution. And it does so worldwide.

After learning to recognise the track of a black-backed jackal and a bat-eared fox in South Africa, I suddenly also noticed the tracks of red foxes in Europe. In the past I had never thought about the tracks left by a nimble running hare. But after seeing the tracks of a scrub hare so often in the savannah, I could easily identify those of the field hare in the northern hemisphere. Although I never learned to track animals in Europe, I can tell during a winter walk through the snow whether a cat is roaming somewhere or it was a neighbour’s little terrier, which way the deer have taken across the field or whether it was a wild boar after all.

It is as if all around me, in the white snow of Europe, in the red sand of the savannah, in the brown mud at the waterhole, there are riddles to be deciphered. Telling a story… of someone who was foraging or fleeing, pausing at a bush to sniff a mark, or leaving a mark themselves. What do you see?

Slide Lioness Paw - Foot Print Brown Hyena foot print Black-backed jackal foot print

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