Tracking Tips...
Otters and Other Critters

By Paul Polechla Jr., Ph.D.

I've been on some hot trails and I've been on some cold trails. One of the hottest trails was so hot that when I observed the river otters walking along the shoreline of a glacial cirque lake, I could feel the warmth from the foot in the fresh track. One of the coldest trails I've been on was so cold that it was a 150,000,000-year-old meat-eating dinosaur (a Jurassic Megalosaur in the panhandle of Oklahoma) fossil track in stone.

Regardless of the age of the trail, tracking (the art and science of finding, identifying, and interpreting the tracks and trails of animals) is a time-honored tradition. It has been employed by Native Americans and non-Native pioneers. It is the tool of hunters, trappers, naturalists, scout youth groups, forensic scientists, search and rescue personnel, policeman, and professional wildlife biologists as well. Although dogs have been used to trail the scent of animals, some biologists have jumped exclusively on the high-tech "band wagon" and use infrared photography, radio-telemetry, DNA fingerprinting, and a variety of other fancy methods. Although these are useful methods, many answers can be gleaned from low-tech tracking. There is no substitute for dyed in the wool, down and dirty, good-old-fashioned trackin'.

Otter Scat
Photo by Judy Berg

If tracking is attacked with the curiosity of a child and the gritty determination of a Dick Tracy detective, the tracker can learn a considerable amount of information. A knowledgeable tracker may determine the age of the track, weather conditions when made, location, habitat of where it was made, sex and age of the animal, what gait the animal used. If you're patient enough to find droppings or scats (called "spraints" by the British), then you may determine what the animal ate. The scat will be approximately the diameter of a quarter and will be laced with fish scales and bones as well as reddish crayfish parts. Coloration can be gray to nearly black when fresh and whitish when old.

Trailing, following the path of tracks an animal makes, is like solving a complex riddle. Who made it, when it was made, where was the animal at the time, how it was made, what it was doing when it made it, and perhaps even why it was made is answerable.

Although much of tracking is a combination of applied physics, you won't have to tote your physics book with you. Bring your mind and some common sense. Keep in mind that "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction" and that animals as well as inanimate objects must adhere to the law of the conservation of energy.

Otter Tracks in Sand and Snow
Photos by Judy Berg


With these two simple yet eloquent ideas in mind. The appearance of the track is dependent on several variables: the anatomy of the foot and body, the weight of the animal, the means of locomotion, and the nature of the substrate. When observing an individual track (or seal as the British biologists call them "seals") note the 1) presence/absence of claw marks, 2) number, shape, and arrangement of the rounded (not elongate like raccoons and beavers) toe pads, 3) presence/absence, and extent of webbing, 4) shape of the foot (metacarpal or metatarsal) pad, and 5) dimensions of the front and hind feet.

Otters generally show 5 toes and claws in a 1-3-1 (the "thumb" and "little finger" are spaced apart from the middle three fingers) pattern with webbing. Some animals walk on tips of their hooves (like deer and other ungulates), some walk on the pads of their digits (like foxes, coyotes, mountain lions, bobcats, and galloping otters), and some animals like the river otter (when walking, and the beaver, raccoon, and muskrat) plant their entire foot down from heal to claw. A walking gait will leave a different trail pattern than galloping and running. The galloping or loping gait will show a 1-2-1x pattern of tracks. The fastest gait of an otter is a hunchback inchworm bounding-type of motion. In this case the tracks will be placed in a 2x pattern. Stride or the distance between tracks of the four track series varies according to gait.

River Otter Slide with Embedded Tracks.
Otter Slide with tracks.
Photos by Judy Berg

Otters will occasionally make a running slide down hill or on flat ground over snow, ice, and slick clay. Look for a trough about 5-6 inches wide when snow is 2 inches deep. The front track measures 2-1/2 to 3-1/2 inches long by 2-3 inches wide, while the rear track measures 3-4 inches long by 2-1/3 to
3-1/3 inches wide.

It is a good idea to train yourself to develop a combination of two viewing techniques: 1) tunnel vision whereby the observer concentrates on the path of the animal and 2) peripheral vision whereby the observer looks to the right and left to detect a turn or angling of the animals path. The ideal time of the day to search for tracks is morning and evening when the low angle of the sun accentuates the track relief. If one is forced to track at mid-day then try "back glancing" or observing the track while looking over your shoulder or while crouched in front of the track. At mid-day or in low light, the tracker can feel the track with his/her fingertips to detect the details and freshness of the track. If you would like a chance of forward tracking to observe the actual animal, make sure you track into the wind. The best time of the year to track is during their breeding/reproductive season: late fall, winter, and early spring. In late fall the vegetation is downed and the surface is usually wet enough to make a good track. Winter is nice in northern or high altitude locations due to fresh blankets of snow. Early spring is good when the vegetation has not come up and obscured tracks and plenty of bare ground is available.

Good places to look for tracks include anywhere water bodies are near one another: such as on mud flats, banks, and sandbars near oxbows, cut-offs, and hair pin turns of streams and rivers. Narrow pieces of land between ponds and lakes. In really swampy and marshy areas, look on logs, rocks, cypress "knees," and hummocks for scats. The lodges, dens, and burrows of other animals are good places to search: beaver lodges/bank dens, muskrat lodges/burrows, nutria dens, and even fox and woodchuck dens. When along the Pacific, Atlantic, or Gulf Coast check out bays, estuaries, brackish marshes, and river deltas for otter sign as well.

Before heading out to the great remaining wetlands check out otters at your local zoo and study their tracks and behavior. Buy a good track book and compare the characteristic tracks of other animals in your area.

Track on brothers and sisters. Enjoy your adventure!