Kids' Animal Station

For kids who love animals by a kid who loves animals

Did you know: Animal Identification 101?! Fact Sheet No. 1

For the past few weeks, I’ve been participating in a virtual youth internship with the conservation focused organization MobilizeGreen. In this program I’ve learned all sorts of fascinating advice and a better understanding of topics from resume building to outdoor survival tactics to developing leadership skills…I’d highly recommend any interested teens or kids to check them out at their official site: https://www.mobilizegreen.org

Recently, one of my favorite courses was on animal identification, and some different ways that we can make a strong hypothesis, or essentially an educated guess, about what animals are traipsing through our neighborhoods, woods, and nature near or far. Things like animal waste (poop or pee), scattered leaves or treaded underground, and feather or fur left around a certain area can help us determine these things.

Animal Poop

A Diagram of Different Animal Scat

Animal scat is one of the most telling ways to figure out the characteristics of a passing animal; think of it as a direct line back to the animal’s stomach and source of food! The scat of herbivores like deer and cows, which only consume plant fibers and vegetation, tends to be more crumbly, larger and less dense, which mimics the incredible amount of grass and straw which herbivores typically have to consume in order to receive their daily needed sustenance. Did you know that elephants must consume an average of 250 to 300 pounds of food in order to stay healthy, but can even eat up to 600 pounds of daily vegetation!

On the other hand, the scat of carnivores pictured above such as the gray wolf, coyote and bobcat tends to be more cylindric with a pointed end, and generally looks closer to human or dog feces than that of herbivores; this makes sense considering humans are naturally omnivorous, and the digestive systems for creatures consuming meat are much different than those which solely digest plants. Depending on whether the poop is wet or drier will tell you how long ago the animal likely came by; if it looks like it has been baking in the sun or falling apart for a while this likely means that said animal has passed by in a span of a few days up to many months in the time it will take for it to decompose.

Trails/Treaded Undergrowth

In my experience, this sign is actually quite noticeable at many locations you would go hiking, camping or go for a nice picnic! Many times you can observe little paths and spread grasses which indicate that something has been walking through, however the path itself is too narrow to be used by a whole lot of human beings. Oftentimes these serve as trails for animals passing through or migrating, but also local animals such as foxes and coyotes which often have close dens hidden near these marked pathways, utilizing for routine hunting. It’s actually really cool when you think about how many animals have likely used these trails for a range of reasons, possibly for years, decades and centuries.

From Sasha Wolf Projects

As well, often larger creatures such as horses, deer, and bison will lay on the ground to rest or sleep in grassy areas and clearings–such as Sasha Wolf Projects depicts in this exhibit. As you can imagine, this can leave behind considerable hints to their presence such as large, flattened grass circles and scattered fur or fluff left behind. This is one that I think people might not think about so often; we usually don’t necessarily think of the activity animals engage in at night and how we might be able to tell.

Animal Tracks

Animal tracks, or patterned paw or hoove prints on the ground, may likely be some of what comes to people’s minds most often when tracking or identifying an animal.

There is quite a bit of overlap that you can find in animals defecation or other marks they may make while traveling along a certain path or trail, but it can often be more difficult when trying to discern the species of relatively closely-related carnivores, such as between a fox and a domesticated dog, for example. This is where a careful eye to details can come in handy; it’s a lot like those dorky “spot the difference” worksheets you might’ve done back in kindergarten, except you can track real information about the world around you! In the example of say, dog versus fox it can be very difficult, especially considering the range of sizes and species which domesticated dogs can come in, even in the same neighborhood!

If we didn’t know any better, the paw print of a chihuahua would probably be like that of some tiny prey animal compared to the giant imprints a Great Dane or Mastiff would leave in the earth. In this case, the singular toe pads of a fox tend to be more elongated and spaced apart, which can be noticed even without measuring them, and the presence of noticeably significant fur around and between the paws could indicate a not-so-domesticated relative of the dog like the fox, coyote or wolf, which has no time for spa days or pedicures! As well, Woodland Ways points out the identifications you may be able to make based on the gait of the fox’s trot, which tends to separate the two hind feet tracks as nearly parallel and quite clearly different from the tracks of the front legs. This is markedly different from the typical way in which most dog species usually walk, with a closer correlation between the two pairs in a more ‘swinging’ motion. See if you can make out what they are talking about in this diagram below.

As well, simple deductive “puzzle” logic (which I quite enjoy testing for myself) can go a surprisingly long way in making that educated or most likely guess of what a species can or cannot possibly be. Honestly, I tend to lean towards hypothesizing most tracks you will see on a recreational or common hiking trail are likely that of a domesticated dog, since people serve as both a companion for any dogs that will come by but also a deterrent for wild animals which may be nearby. On the other hand, if you’re on a path that doesn’t allow dogs (which many biking paths don’t) or there are clearly canine marks where there is an absence of human footprints, this may indicate a animal of a more feral kind.

In conclusion, there’s a lot you can deduce from even just a few minutes of observation out someplace. And it’s not like you even have to go that far; if you live in a suburban area or even just somewhere with a few parks like me there’s a strong chance that there’s a million prints, signs of life and stories of the life cycle taking place all around you! If you’ve got a fact or story to share about identifying animals, feel free to share with the button at the bottom right corner!

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Wise Words

"Never, never be afraid to do what's right, especially if a person or animal is at stake."
— Martin Luther King, Jr.

"Until the lion tells his side of the story, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter."
— Translation of African Proverb

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