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Canine Scent Posts

Dogs, Foxes, and Coyotes navigate the world far more with their noses than with their eyes or ears. Canines have 20 times more sensory receptors in their noses than we do, a larger part of their brains devoted to analyzing smell, and they can move their nostrils independently of each other to identify the direction an odour is coming from. Scents tell the animal not only what’s around them now, but also the history of what has been in the area. With all this olfactory acuity, it’s no surprise that PEI’s wild canines use scent posts to communicate.

It’s not just sensory receptors that make canines excellent sniffers, their noses also function differently from ours. We breath and smell through the same passageway. When canines inhale, the air is separated: about 12% goes to the olfactory region which holds on to the scent molecules, preventing them from being exhaled; the remaining 88% is used for breathing. With each subsequent breath, more scent molecules accumulate, and the smell grows stronger for the animal. Additionally, have you ever noticed the slits in the side of a dog’s nose (Photo 1)? When the animal exhales, the air goes out through those slits rather than through the nostril. This prevents outgoing air from flushing scents out of the nostril and enables the animal to smell almost continuously.

Photo 1: Canine noses are specially adapted to be great sniffers!

We’re at the tail-end of Red Fox mating season on PEI, and you don’t need a powerful canine nose to smell them! Fox urine has a musky odour that’s especially strong this time of year, making it easy to tell a Fox scent post from Coyote or domestic Dog. Both Foxes and Coyotes use scent posts to mark their territories and communicate with others in the area. Information about the animal’s age, sex, breeding status, health, diet, and more can all be conveyed via smells in scat and urine. I find Foxes to be very cat-like, and they prefer to leave their scents on something elevated: a fallen log, stump, or even an old hay bale or your back deck! This one was on the top of a frozen ant hill (Photo 2). Several animals have marked this spot, one with scat and at least one other with urine.

Photo 2: A Red Fox scent post.

Coyotes often leave more dramatic scent posts directly on the ground (Photo 3). I’ve mentioned Coyote ground scratches before, but they are much more obvious in winter. You’ve likely seen domestic dogs kick the ground with their hind legs after eliminating. This is called ground scratching, and Coyotes do the same thing. This serves to communicate to other Coyotes in the area, both visually and by scent. By kicking up material that has been urinated or defecated upon, the animal is spreading its scent further.

Photo 3: Eastern Coyote ground scratches. These were all along one trail on my property, each about 200 paces from the next.

Additionally, Coyotes (and Dogs) have scent glands in their paws and so this behavior leaves additional scent behind. The three images in Photo 3 were all along the same trail on my property, each about 200 paces apart, placed like regular “no trespassing” signs. The first one was 250 metres (about 820 feet) as the Crow flies from the Red Fox scent post in Photo 2. Foxes and Coyotes regularly share the same territories, although they are not usually in the same place at the same time. It’s a myth that Coyotes are major predators of Foxes.

There’s still some winter wildlife tracking season left, which is a great way to enjoy PEI untamed!

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