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Making Tracks

Following animal tracksThere are plenty of ways to find wildlife subjects to photograph.  As a guide in Yellowstone, I largely rely on my experience and knowledge gleaned over the years to know where to look for particular species.  Animal territories often remain the same over the course of years or even decades, so it makes sense to return to spots where I know owls may nest, pikas may gather food for winter or bears may raise their cubs.  This type of knowledge is the basis for most wildlife guides’ success in the field, but sometimes you need additional help to actually spot and track down animals in their particular hiding spot.  One’s senses come into play at this point.  Top guides can listen for calls, look for movement or flashes of color, and sometimes even smell for territorial markings.  Of course, there’s one calling card that can easily tell us whether an animal has been in the area, and sometimes how recently they passed through: tracks.

Guides, trackers and hunters have been following tracks and footprints for millennia, and things are no different today during my nature photography trips.  During a winter visit to the park, I long for fresh snowfall overnight so we can see who or what has passed through recently once we get out to explore in the morning.  I’ve scanned ermine tracks up a distant snowy slope and actually managed to spot the tiny critter, nearly invisible against the snow except for a bobbing black tip on its tail.  Jackson photographer Mike Cavaroc once followed mountain lion tracks and actually caught up to the cats that left them.

In places like Africa and Latin America, my guides have used tracks to find cats and other cool wildlife.  In the tropics, wet conditions will lead to more obvious impressions in the mud.  A solid outline on the sandy roads in Africa or India can tell a guide how recently an animal came through, or how far ahead they may be on the road.

One of my favorite tracking moments occurred when my Costa Rican guide Felipe (who also happens to be the best tracker I’ve ever worked with), managed to find a sloth 20 feet up a tree thanks to very faint tracks on the ground… which were left by humans.  He picked up on subtle shoe impressions most people would have missed, which indicated to him that a group of tourists was standing around for a while, so he deduced they must’ve been looking at something.  Sure enough, directly above us hidden in the forest canopy was a three-toed sloth with a baby.  So even understanding human footprints can pay off occasionally!

I’ve photographed a fair number of animal tracks over the years.  When I searched the archives for photos to accompany this article, I was surprised by how many different footprint photos I had.  So I figured I’d put you all to the test.  Below are two collages featuring tracks from individual species.  See how many you can identify.  It won’t be easy.  These photos don’t give you a sense of scale that’s crucial in narrowing down the type of animal that left the tracks.  But give it a shot anyway and see how you do.  Answers are at the bottom of the page.

First, the cats.  All of these prints were left by different cat species.  Again, it would be quite difficult to get these 100% right without further clues such as size and location, but maybe the environment in the pictures will help you a little.  These photos were taken all over the world.

Wild cat tracks

Let’s try some non-feline species.  This may be a bit easier.  All of these photos were taken in North and Central America.

Wild animal tracks

How do you think you did?  Find out below!



Cats (starting top left, going clockwise)

Snow leopard (with bonus red fox track), India
Jaguar, Costa Rica
Bobcat, Yellowstone National Park
Leopard, South Africa
Mountain lion, Yellowstone
Bengal tiger, India
Ocelot, Costa Rica

Other Animals (starting top left, going clockwise)
Gray wolf, Yellowstone
Black bear and Coyote, Yellowstone
Ermine, Yellowstone
Grizzly bear, Yellowstone
Deer mouse, Yellowstone
Raccoon, British Columbia
Baby sea turtles, Costa Rica
River otter, Yellowstone



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