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Tracks and Sign: Raccoon

In an earlier post in this series, we looked at the challenges of tracking in PEI’s dry sand. Today let’s look at one of the easiest substrates to track in: red Island mud! Tracks from a local Raccoon (Procyon lotor) make a useful demonstration.

I run my wildlife track and sign series over the winter because snow reveals so much about our neighbours of other species. But the right conditions at other times of year can be *almost* as good. Unlike dry sand, mud often results in clear, durable prints that can last long after the animal has passed by. Very deep or soft mud can make a print larger than the foot itself was and will sometimes obscure important features. Shallow, firm mud like that seen here is about as close as you can get to perfection.

Clear Raccoon tracks are distinctive and unlikely to be confused for anything else: five, sausage-like toes on each foot, in a very hand-like pattern. Each toe has a nail that – in good substrate like this – leaves a clear imprint (Photo 1). The hind foot is larger than the front, and you can tell left from right by the ‘thumb’ set a little farther back than the other toes. This upper track in this photo is a hind right foot and the lower track is a front left.

A nice thing about Raccoons is that they have a gait unique among PEI mammals. When walking, they move the front and hind legs on one side almost simultaneously, very much like a pacing horse at the racetrack. The result is a distinctive side-by-side track, with the right front foot paired with the left rear, and vice-versa along the trail (Photo 2). Anytime you see that alternating diagonal pattern – even if the tracks themselves are not clear – you can be sure it’s a Raccoon.

Of course, some Raccoon tracks will be more complicated than a straight-line walk, but if you can recognize the basic gait, you can figure out what the animal was doing. At the top and bottom of Photo 3, you can pick out the normal, alternating diagonals; I’ve outlined those in black.

That leaves the odd pattern in the middle, outlined in red. To visualize what’s going on, it’s helpful to know which foot is which so I’ve labelled them. This Raccoon paused mid-stride and turned to the right to look at something. You can see that the front right foot is turned slightly to the right, and there is more weight on it than on the front left foot. (If you can’t quite picture it, try replicating the pose yourself on the floor, twister-style!).

After the pause, this Raccoon’s next step was to move its front left foot from the middle of the photo (red) to the top of the photo (black). It then resumed its normal walking gait, moving both feet on the right side nearly simultaneously.

Tracking is a cool way to read what’s going on in our Island landscape!

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