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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Cat Track Fever: Mountian lion, lynx and bobcat compared

Tomorrow I will start covering Felines in class and that prompted me to update my presentation after taking a mountain lion tracking course this winter. I wrote a little about that course in the post "In like a lion..."  but I want to spend some more time on the subject...

The course was held the first week in February and used Great Falls, Montana as the home base of operations (although we travelled each day). We had the opportunity to compare and contrast all three wild cat species of Montana during the week, which was particularly helpful.

Cat tracks of just about any species have some commonalities. First, cats only walk on their toes and the "balls" of their feet. This is called "digitigrade" meaning "walking on the digits". There are four toes that normally show in either front or rear tracks. What people often call the heel pad of the track is actually the ball of the foot or the part just past the toes. The heel of a cat sits high up the leg and generally doesn't show in a normal gait. The four toes are arranged something like the four fingers of a human hand. Look for the longer of the two center toes to be the index finger and you will be able to tell a right from a left track. For example:

Bobcat, left print (Massachusetts, 1/11)
 Looking at the bobcat track to the right, I can see this is a left foot as the pinkie is all the way to the left and the index finger is to the right of center. Further, this will be a rear track. This bobcat was walking and stepping precisely in the impression made by the front foot. This is called "direct registering" and is common among many animals, but only in certain strides.

With no scale in this picture, you will have to trust me this is a bobcat. But the real purpose is to get you to start seeing right from left tracks.

Also note that there are no nail marks. I can assure you that sometimes cats will show nails and sometimes dogs of several species will not! However, this remains a valuable trait to note as I will explain in another post. One last piece of tracker terminology I need to share is the term "negative space" to refer to the part of the track BETWEEN toes and pads. For example, look at the undisturbed snow below the toes but above the ball of the foot. That is what some trackers call negative space.

Mountain lion: Mountain lions or cougars or puma or panthers or whatever you call them where you live have a track that is is large. A male lion being bigger should leave a larger track and I have seen measurements given in reference texts as large as 4+ inches long and over 3.5 inches wide. Please note that these numbers overlap what is given for lynx, so we will have to look at other clues besides just size to tell those two species apart. Here is a great example of a mountain lion track from Montana:

Mountain lion track, probably male (Montana, 2/11)
 We measured heel pads as well as overall track width. Jay, the instructor, made a good point that overall track size is more variable than the heel pad since the track has more than one part to it. So if the toes are splayed for traction that will effect the size of the track even though thte size fo the animal has not changed. The heel pad was also very easy to measure and he has found that a 2 inch heel pad is a good indication of a male lion versus a smaller female. Quick quiz! Is this a right or a left track? Did you get the answer RIGHT?

To measure the heel pad (which remember, is not really a heel but is commonly called that) we used a compass to get the most accurate measurement. I like that technique and carried one in my jacket pocket for the rest of the winter. I ended up jabbing myself more than anything so note to self was get one that still has the protective sleeve :)

Measuring a mountain lion track (Montana, 2/11)
  I have so many photos from this trip that it has been hard to select only the few to post here on the blog. None can capture the pure exhiliration I felt at being in the same space as these amazing creatures. It was with near reverence that I placed my fingers into the first set of tracks we found, knowing that only a few hours earlier a mountian lion had been there in that very spot. Like any true fan grinning over the autograph of his/her favorite athlete, singer or movie star, I could not help but gush over these signatures in the snow...

Final thoughts on the lion tracks: I was immediately struck with how easy they were to find. I know I said this in my March post, but if we had mountain lions here in the eastern US, the evidence for them would be overwhelming, abundant and readily available for all to examine and judge.

Lynx: Although lynx tracks can rival mountain lion tracks in size, there are several key differences. First, since the lynx is much smaller, the stride of the lynx's trail will be shorter. Secondly, there are some habitat preferences that can be used as a clue, especially in the winter. Lynx are much more comfortable in deeper snow and are often found higher in the mountains. Finally, the lynx track is simply a different shape than the mountain lion. Given that and the difference in stride length, I found it easy to distinguish the ones we found. Of course, after a one-week class, I am no expert and I am certain that there would be many exceptions out in the field. My point is only that with a little practice, anyone can achieve a modest level of proficiency in telling these two critters apart by tracks.

Lynx track (Montana, 2/11)
Using my glove for scale, you can see that overall this track is quite large and rivals a mountain lion. These are its natural snowshoes. However, look closely at the toes in particular. They are much smaller than the robost toes of the lion. Much of the track is fuzzy and indistinct due to the hair on the paws of the lynx. There is more negative space between each toe. Although the direction of travel is not in doubt in this track, I want to share something else jay taught us. We followed some old or wind blown tracks during the week that were not distinct at all and he said one good way to discern direction of travel is to remember "long in and short out". In other words, there is a long entry mark in the snow and a short exit mark. This is clear in the track to the right and I found it to be true for most tracks of all species.

We had to drive high into the mountains to find lynx. Jay knew of a road that had a ski resort at the end so it remained open high up. the scenery was amazing and the cold air felt good, as if I had earned it. I have never seen a wild lynx no less its tracks before so this was really something special. I took a photo of Jay and Bret inspecting the first set of lynx tracks we found to give you an idea of the terrain.

Bobcat: I am tired writing so you must be tired of reading by now! Thanks for hanging in there! Of our three cats toay, the bobcat leaves the smallest track of all and can even be as small as a house cat in some parts of its range. Halfpenny gives a size of less than 2 inches in his track book. We found bobcat tracks everywhere we found mountain lion. It wasn't until the final day that I discovered a set first. They seemed pretty fresh to me and we followed them for about 40 yards. here is a great example with my hand print for scale.

Bobcat track (Montana, 2/11)

By now you should be able to recognize the characteristic cat track shape. You should also be able to tell me if this is a right or left track. Bobcat are only starting to come back to the Finger Lakes region of NY and I cannot wait for the day when we have a breeding population to call our own. Until then, I will have to settle for traveling to see my wild cats becuase house cat just doesn't count :)

Unless the cameras turn up something unusual, I am thinking of two more posts on cat tracks. One will show some of the oddities we found while tracking the three species and the other will show specifics on how to tell lion tracks from dog tracks. Until then, I hope you are feline fine and having a purrfect day. :)


  1. I like the idea of using a measuring compass,bit more accurate than a tape measure......

  2. I like the wire idea as well, and will be carrying some. Are bobcats toes splayed out as well?

  3. Hi Marshall, I think you wnated this comment to go witht he next post... I would move it if I knew how :)

    The only time I saw bobcat tracks splayed out was when we found a track that was heading down a steep decline. The toes were sprawled out and the nails were even fully extended for more traction. I was planning a post showing some of the odd things I saw in the cat tracks and will post that photo in that entry (if I get around to it...) JVN

  4. Yeah, sorry the comment was supposed to be on the next post. I think this blog is a great idea and i am looking forward to reading more. keep up the good work! I have also told some others to check it out.


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