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Canine Gaits

Wildlife tracks can tell you not only who’s been around, but also what they’ve been up to. In my last PEI tracking post, I gave you some tips for identifying fox, coyote and dog tracks. Today, let’s look at some canine gaits and what they mean.

Photo 1 (left side) is a direct register walk, used by both coyotes and foxes (though I’ve never seen it in domestic dogs). I often hear people say that foxes walk in a straight line while coyotes leave a more meandering trail. That’s partially true – foxes do use the direct register walk more often than coyotes – but that’s not a reliable indicator of species on its own. In this gait, the animal’s hind foot lands roughly in the spot the front foot had been, giving that straight line appearance. This is a useful, energy conserving gait, especially in snow. I’m sure you’ve experienced this yourself: it's a lot easier to walk in established tracks than it is to break your own trail!

Photo 1: A direct-register walk (left) and trot (right) of a Red Fox.

Photo 1 (right side) is a direct register trot, a faster gait than the direct register walk as shown by the distance between prints. This is the normal travelling gait of our foxes and coyotes and tells you this animal was relaxed. It wasn’t actively hunting or trying to avoid being seen, but rather just cruising around its own territory.

If you look closely at the left-hand image in Photo 2, you’ll notice two different gaits. The bottom four pairs of tracks form a gentle S-curve, while the top four pairs form parallel diagonal lines. In track interpretation it’s useful to remember that some mammals - including canines - have front tracks larger than the hind tracks. The right-hand image interprets what’s going on.

Photo 2: A Red Fox transitions from a straddle trot to a side trot.

The animal (a fox in this case) moved from a straddle trot to a side trot. Both gaits allow the hind foot to land ahead of where the front foot was, enabling the animal to stretch out more and move faster. Both gaits are faster than the direct register trot. In the straddle trot, each hind foot moves out to the side it’s on. In the side trot, the animal is on a slight angle, resulting in the front feet landing to one side of the trail and hind feet to the other.

The straddle trot is a transition between gaits and rarely used for any distance. The side trot is a faster gait used when the animal has a destination in mind. This series of tracks shows a fox picking up speed, but not because it was scared or saw a meal. Had that been the case, the straddle trot would have been skipped and the fox would have gone straight to a side trot or even a lope or gallop. This fox is still relaxed but has perhaps decided on a destination.

Photo 3: A wildlife intersection. Wildlife use trails for the same reasons we do: easier travelling and often the best route to get from point A to point B. Here an Eastern Coyote, Red Fox and Snowshoe Hare all passed through recently, though not at the same time.

It's always fun to read tracks and gaits in wildlife intersections, such as the one shown in Photo 3. Here, we have two predators and one prey, though not all at the same time. First on scene was the Red Fox, travelling in a lope as indicated by that distinctive 1-2-1 track pattern. This is a faster pace than any of the trots, but not as fast as a gallop; this animal was in a hurry, but not panicked. Next through was the Eastern Coyote in a side trot. I commonly see coyotes using this gait in areas where they are exposed, as is the case here. This animal wasn’t hunting or stressed but wasn’t going to dawdle either. Last through was the Snowshoe Hare, in a bound. The farther apart hare tracks are, the faster the animal was moving. Like the fox and coyote, this hare wasn’t panicked, but was quickly making its way to cover. Given the predators in the area, that wasn’t a bad idea!

Reading wildlife tracks and gaits can tell you more about what’s going on with PEI – untamed!

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