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Mountain Lion vs. Dog Tracks

In this slide show, I show you how to tell apart the tracks of mountain lions and domestic dogs. The tracks of these two species are frequently confused with each other. It is a common question that is asked of trackers. The mountain lion (Puma concolor) is also called the puma, or cougar, and other common names. Its tracks show four toes, just like those of domestic dogs do. However, there are some subtle differences. It takes time and training to tell them apart and even then, they can be confusing. Animal tracks are a way to enrich your experience outdoors. I hope this slide show will help you tell apart the tracks of these two species whose tracks can often be confusing.

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Mountain Lion vs. Dog Tracks

  1. 1. How to Identify the Tracks of the Two Most Frequently Confused Species © Kim A. Cabrera Beartracker’s Animal Tracks Den
  2. 2. We’ve all seen the pictures of perfect tracks in field guides. One of the most common mistakes is thinking that all tracks are alike and should look exactly like those you see in the field guide. The sooner you lose this notion, the faster you will learn to be a better tracker. Learn to identify tracks from partial prints and in as many different types of substrate as you have available. Notice how track size varies depending on the substrate you are tracking in (sometimes drastically), even for prints from the same foot on the same animal. Some suggestions: •Never use one single characteristic to make your identification of a track •Take your time •Examine more than one track in a sequence •Look at the gait and track patterns for additional clues •Remember to assess the habitat as well – does the species you are thinking of occur there? •Have fun. Tracking is fun and rewarding. First - A Few Things About Tracking Now, let’s examine the characteristics used to tell cougar tracks from dog tracks.
  3. 3. Cougars have claws. They are predators and use those claws to kill prey. So, the claws should show up in the tracks, right? This one single identifying characteristic causes the most confusion. Dogs and cougars both have claws. Cougars can retract their claws, so they don’t leave imprints in tracks very often. It is rare to see cougar claw marks in tracks. However, that’s not to say that it never happens. Dogs have non-retractable claws and they often show up in the tracks. Not always, but usually. Because tracks vary so much, it is important to never rely on just this one characteristic to make your identification. Claws or No Claws?
  4. 4. Claw marks are easily visible in this clear dog track. However, very few tracks are this perfect.
  5. 5. This cougar track shows no evidence of claw marks, even though it is in deep mud.
  6. 6. An important characteristic to look for is the symmetry of the track. Dog tracks and cougar tracks have different symmetry. If you look at a dog track, there is an overall balance to it. The toes are aligned with each other and you can draw relatively neat, straight lines by intersecting the toes. Track Symmetry or Balance
  7. 7. A cougar track is asymmetrical. There is a leading toe usually identifiable. This characteristic is very important in differentiating cougar from dog tracks. Dog tracks do not normally have this characteristic. However there are always exceptions, such as when a dog slips in the mud. Examples will be shown later. Additionally, the hind track of a cougar is more symmetrical than the front track and thus can resemble a dog track.
  8. 8. Side-by-side, you can see the symmetry of a dog track (left) compared to that of a cougar (right). The dog’s toes line up even with each other. There is no leading toe. The cougar track, on the other hand, seems to be leaning toward one side due to its asymmetrical alignment. Comparison
  9. 9. A line drawn across the forward two toes in a cougar track will usually intersect one toe – the leading toe. It is easily visible in this snow track, but is sometimes much more difficult to see. This is an important characteristic, but is not the only one to rely on. Nor is it always this clear. This is a rare perfect track. The Leading Toe Using the leading toe as a guide, you can tell left from right cougar tracks…..
  10. 10. The cougar’s leading toe is equivalent to your own middle finger. Remember that toe number 1 (the thumb) does not usually register in cougar tracks. Toes are numbered from one to five, beginning with the innermost toe. This is the dewclaw on a cougar or dog, and a thumb on a human. The leading toe on a cougar track is toe number 3. As you can see, the position of the leading toe will help you identify left or right cougar tracks.
  11. 11. Overall track shape is another good clue to the identity of the track maker. If you draw an imaginary line around the outer edge of the track, you will see that a dog’s track is usually somewhat egg- shaped or maple leaf-shaped. The shape depends on the breed of dog. Some dogs have narrower and longer tracks. Others have wider tracks that look more like the maple leaf shape. Overall Track Shape then
  12. 12. A cougar’s track is usually somewhat round in overall outline. However, this is more true of the front tracks than the hind tracks. The hind track of a cougar is shaped more like a dog track. Photo by Jessika Hodgson
  13. 13. Another characteristic that helps to differentiate cougar from dog tracks is the shape of the toes. Cougar toes appear somewhat teardrop-shaped. Shape of Toes
  14. 14. Dog toes appear rounded or egg-shaped. The outer two toes often appear somewhat triangular in shape.
  15. 15. Here is a side-by-side comparison showing the shapes of dog (left) and cougar (right) toes.
  16. 16. Leading toe can appear larger than the other toes Dog Cougar Teardrop shaped toes Round or egg- shaped toes Triangular outer toe shape
  17. 17. The foot pads are distinctive on cougars. The leading edge (on both the front and hind foot pads) has two lobes. Sometimes you can see this clearly. If not, then it may appear relatively flat, unlike that of a dog. Dogs have a single lobe on the leading edge of this pad, which makes it look more like it comes to a point. Pictured is the right hind foot of a cougar, with the metatarsal (heel) pad highlighted. Shape of the Foot Pad Edges Leading edge flat or two-lobed
  18. 18. The first distinctive thing about the pad is the two lobes on the leading edge. Another distinctive characteristic is the three lobes seen on the hind edge of the foot pad. This characteristic is NOT distinctive to cougars, however. Some dog breeds do have three lobes on the hind edge of the foot pad, so use multiple characteristics to make your identification. If you were to draw an imaginary letter that connected the high points of the lobes on the foot pad of a cougar, it would resemble the letter M. Three lobes
  19. 19. A dog’s foot pads lack the two lobes on the leading edge that you see in cougar tracks. The leading edge of a dog foot pad will show one lobe only. It makes the pad appear to come to a point, rather than appearing flat or bi-lobed as in the cougar track. One lobe
  20. 20. You can make an imaginary inverted letter V out of the shape of the foot pad on a dog’s track. Note that the leading edge is where the point is. Leading edge, one lobe
  21. 21. Shape of the Negative Space Negative space is a term used in art to describe the spaces between objects. If you look through the legs of a chair, for example, negative space would be anything that is NOT a chair leg. When looking at tracks, negative space is anything that is not part of the track, such as the spaces between toe imprints and foot pad imprints. The shape of the negative space can help you tell cougar from dog tracks as well. Dog Cougar Negative space = anything that is not part of the track itself
  22. 22. By drawing an imaginary line in the negative space between the toe pad imprints and the foot pad imprint of this cougar track, you can see that it is shaped roughly like the letter C.
  23. 23. This perfect cougar track in snow shows the shape of the negative space very well. The shape looks like the letter C on its side
  24. 24. This dog track shows a sort of H-shaped negative space. The shape of the negative space on a dog print will vary with dog breed. Some have this H shape and others have a more X-shaped negative space. Wild canines, such as foxes and coyotes, share these characteristic shapes of the negative space. Foxes tend to have more of an H- shaped negative space, while the coyote’s tends to look more like the letter X.
  25. 25. Not only does the shape of a dog’s track vary with the dog’s breed, but so does the shape of the negative space. This dog track shows an egg-shaped print with an X- shaped negative space.
  26. 26. There is frequently a raised area, or bump, in the center of a dog track. This is caused by soil being pushed up into the empty space between the toes and the foot pad as the track is made. The same area where you can draw an X through the negative space will also usually show this raised area, or bump. In unclear tracks, this bump may be the only clue a tracker has that they are looking at canine tracks. Raised bump in center of the track The Bump in a Dog’s Track
  27. 27. The diagrams below show a cross-section of a track. The dog track on the left shows the raised bump in the center. The cougar track on the right lacks a raised area. The red line in the diagrams shows where the ground level would be above the track imprint. Ground surface Raised bump in dog track Track imprint Track imprint Dog Track Cougar Track
  28. 28. Another thing to look for when examining tracks is the slope of the foot pad imprint. Does it slope downward toward the front of the track and the toe imprints? This downward slope is characteristic of dog prints. A cougar’s foot pad will leave a relatively flat imprint, sloping neither forward nor backward in the track. This characteristic is not always clear in every track and is one to rely on as a secondary identifying characteristic only. Downward slope of foot pad Front of track Ground surface Ground surface Flat or no slope Dog track Cougar track Slope of the Foot Pad Imprint
  29. 29. The foot pad on a cougar track takes up a lot more of the track’s real estate (or overall area), than it does in a dog track. The pad is large in relation to the size of the toes. Track Real Estate
  30. 30. Habitat and Range This last characteristic can be tricky. Cougars are expanding their range eastward into areas where they haven’t been seen in decades or more. So, there is always the possibility that you might find cougar tracks in areas outside the range shown on most range maps. On the other hand, dogs are often found in places you would not normally think a dog could be. These include parks where dogs are “off limits” and wilderness areas far from human habitations. People do bring their dogs into these areas. Sometimes, dogs wander off and become feral, living wild and hunting for their food. So, don’t rule out dog tracks if you find dog-like prints in these out-of-the-way places. When you find tracks whose identity you question, it’s good to consult range maps to give you an idea which species might reasonably be found in the area where you found the tracks. But don’t take the maps as the most accurate source. Many of these maps are outdated or just outright wrong. Some show a wide range for an animal, but that particular species may not be able to occupy the particular microhabitat you have found a track in. So, use your best judgment and use the maps as a guide only. Follow the trail and get a better idea of the appearance of as many tracks made by the animal as possible. Then, make your identification based on all the clues you have gathered.
  31. 31. Review of Characteristics Used to Differentiate Dog From Cougar Tracks Here is a quick review of all the characteristics we have just examined. 1. Claws or no Claws? 2. Track Symmetry or Balance 3. The Leading Toe 4. Overall Track Shape 5. Shape of Toes 6. Shape of the Foot Pad Edges 7. Shape of the Negative Space 8. The Bump in a Dog’s Track 9. Slope of the Foot Pad Imprint 10. Track Real Estate 11. Habitat and Range Ready to test your knowledge? The next few slides show unlabeled tracks (both dog and cougar) for you to try to identify. Use your new knowledge to help you. When you click on the slide again, you will get the identification of the track, along with some helpful clues that can assist in identifying it.
  32. 32. Answer: Cougar Clues: Overall round outline, no claw marks, asymmetrical alignment, shape of negative space
  33. 33. Answer: Dog Clues: Claw marks, shape of negative space and toes. Claw marks are difficult to see. Click again to see claw marks close-up. Asymmetry was due to slip in the mud.
  34. 34. Answer: Cougar Clues: Overall round outline, presence of leading toe, shape of negative space Click to see features outlined © Rick Bradshaw
  35. 35. Answer: Dog Clues: Bump in the center, shape of negative space, foot pad real estate size
  36. 36. Answer: Cougar Clues: Overall shape, leading toe, foot pad size
  37. 37. Answer: Dog Clues: Claw marks, toe alignment, track shape Note: Length of track is due to a slip in the mud.
  38. 38. Answer: Cougar Clues: Leading toe, lack of claw marks (except one rare imprint on the second toe), shape of negative space
  39. 39. Answer: Cougar Clues: Leading toe, overall shape, three lobes on foot pad, shape of negative space Click again to see these characteristics outlined on the track
  40. 40. Answer: Dog Clues: Bump in the center, shape of negative space, toe alignment, triangular outer toes
  41. 41. Answer: Cougar Clues: Leading toe, asymmetry, shape of negative space, teardrop toe shape Click to see a plaster cast that was made from this track, which shows the clues much more clearly Leading toe Three lobes
  42. 42. Answer: Dog Clues: Bump in the center, shape of negative space, claw marks, toe alignment
  43. 43. Answer: Dog Clues: Bump in the center, shape of negative space, claw marks, overall shape, triangular outer toe shape
  44. 44. Answer: Cougar Clues: Leading toe, three lobes on foot pad, overall shape, flat foot pad
  45. 45. Answer: Dog Clues: Shape of negative space, claw marks (left toe), toe alignment, triangular-shaped outer toes
  46. 46. Answer: Cougar Clues: Leading toe, three lobes on foot pad, tear-drop shaped toes, size of foot pad
  47. 47. Answer: Dog Clues: Bump in the center, shape of negative space, foot pad real estate size, overall egg-shaped track outline
  48. 48. Answer: Dog Clues: Toe alignment, shape of negative space, claw marks
  49. 49. Answer: Cougar Clues: Leading toe, foot pad size, shape of negative space, overall track outline is round
  50. 50. Answer: Dog Clues: Claw marks, shape of negative space, pointed foot pad. Notice that this track shows three lobes on foot pad.
  51. 51. Answer: Cougar Clues: Flat foot pad, three lobes, leading toe, foot pad size
  52. 52. Answer: Cougar Clues: Large flat foot pad, three lobes, flat leading edge of foot pad, overall round track shape
  53. 53. Answer: Cougar (RF) Clues: Leading toe, three lobes on foot pad, two lobes on foot pad leading edge
  54. 54. Answer: Dog Clues: Bump in the center, clear claw marks, toe alignment is symmetrical, maple leaf overall track shape
  55. 55. Answer: Cougar (LF) Clues: Leading toe, teardrop- shaped toes, shape of negative space, flat leading edge of foot pad
  56. 56. Answer: Cougar (RH) Clues: Leading toe, three lobes on edge of foot pad, tear-drop shaped toes
  57. 57. Answer: Cougar Clues: Three lobes on foot pad clearly visible, flat leading edge of foot pad, teardrop-shaped toes, leading toe very clear, no claw marks
  58. 58. Some Foot Morphology Terms used by Trackers Digital pads = the toe pads of a mammal’s foot Metacarpal pad = the palm pad of a mammal’s foot, on the front feet Metatarsal pad = the heel pad of a mammal’s foot, on the hind feet Dewclaw = the first toe, located up on the animal’s arm and rarely imprints in the tracks Carpal pad = Sixth pad located even higher up the animal’s arm, on the outer edge For ease of understanding, I have tried to use the term “foot pad” throughout this presentation to make it easier for non-trackers to follow the descriptions. A= Carpal pad B = Dewclaw C = Metacarpal pad D = Digital pads
  59. 59. Photo Credits Unless otherwise labeled, all photos by Kim A. Cabrera Perfect cougar tracks in mud – photos by Linda Jo Hunter Author of Lonesome for Bears. Visit her web site at: Cougar tracks in snow photos donated by: Jessika Hodgson Peter DeSimas Rick Bradshaw All graphics, drawings and text by Kim A. Cabrera Copyright © 2011 by Kim A. Cabrera
  60. 60. Permission is granted for educational use, but NO commercial use without prior written authorization of the author. Re-distribution is allowed for educational purposes only, provided that all copyright notices are left intact and no slides, graphics, text, or any other part of this slide show is removed and/or edited in any way without prior written permission from the author. Copyright © 2011 by Kim A. Cabrera