Trackers unveil mystery of animal prints

Naturalist Dan Yacobellis gave students a hands-on experience with animal tracking in Hopkins Forest. Faris Gulamali/Arts Editor.

Imagine that every step you took today left a visible track on the ground. If you could go back and follow each footstep you took, how much could you deduce about your day? You could see where you traveled, but could you tell how fast you were walking? Could you infer from your stride length when you ran to catch up with a friend? Would you know what friends you walked alongside based on the size of their tracks? Could you tell when you hesitated, unsure where to go next? For expert trackers like naturalist Dan Yacobellis, making these sorts of inferences is like reading a book. The pages are the snow on the ground, and the words are the tracks made by the wild denizens of the woods.

On Saturday morning, in the Rosenburg Center at Hopkins Memorial Forest, students and community members sipped coffee in front of Yacobellis as he drew the shapes of animal tracks on the chalkboard. Every animal travels through the forest differently, and each leaves behind a distinct print. The tracks of the cat family are rounded; those of the dog family are ovular. Every gait and stride length leaves behind a signature unique to each animal. With careful observation, one can identify the species that made a set of tracks, but that is only the beginning of the deduction. The real fun lies in extrapolating the whole story from those tracks, and this endeavor is what still has Yacobellis riveted after tracking animals for over 20 years.

Having started our trek in search of prints, it did not take long before we could recognize the comings and goings of squirrels, voles, deer and birds around the feeders outside the Rosenburg Center. Beneath one red pine, some tracks led us to the animal itself, and we were treated to an up-close view of a particularly audacious vole voraciously consuming bird food. In an impressive display of speed, Yacobellis snatched the vole up and held it in his gloved hand for us to see. After returning to the ground, the vole rapidly disappeared beneath the snow, only to emerge moments later.

We began to uncover the most exciting story of the day when we happened upon some tracks left by small canine paws. Yacobellis had undoubtedly already identified the animal that was still indiscernible to the rest of us. We then found the path of a gray fox skirting around a log where the field met the forest. Yacobellis could tell this fox was a regular here. Stooping to smell the urine left by the fox, the naturalist explained that he had seen fox tracks in this exact place several weeks before. He pushed us to make inferences about the animal’s behavior. We found some prints that compressed the snow less than the others, as if they had borne a fraction of the fox’s full body weight. Here, the animal had hesitated before proceeding, placing a paw lightly on the snow for balance. Finding a gap in the tracks followed by a cluster of prints, we guessed that the fox had leapt into the air. But why? A student noted that there were bird tracks nearby; perhaps the fox had leapt in opportunistic pursuit of a feathery meal. But it seemed that the fox had left empty-pawed.

Our investigation transformed into a murder mystery once the gray fox’s tracks merged with those of a red fox before reaching the site of a deadly act of predation. One of the foxes had pounced onto the snow and caught an unsuspecting vole. But which fox committed the act? The scene was too chaotic to tell. Leaving the fox tracks, we etched our own footsteps into the wet snow on the trail back to the Rosenburg Center. The fox had snagged a meal, and now it was time for us to procure one of our own.

Simply by heightening our awareness of the signs around us, we had reconstructed the story of a pair of foxes using only the snow. If we always paid this much attention to the world around us, imagine the things we could learn.

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