A Closer Look at Deer Tracks

Video deer track direction

A deer track-so familiar that we may pass it by without paying much attention. But a closer look at a deer track can reveal some unexpected insights. In the photo above the two main toes (called clouts or claws) show as paired depressions separated by a ridge. In each clout the broader rear edges are rounded and the narrower forward ends are bluntly pointed, so the direction of travel is to the right. When the toes are placed close together the way they are in this photo, the overall shape is vaguely heart-shaped.

Here’s another shot of deer tracks, in this case a left front (at the lower left) and a left hind (at the upper right). Front prints tend to be slightly wider and more rounded than rear prints, but the differences between front and rear are not nearly as pronounced as they are in most other mammals.

Now look at the first photo again: it’s actually a rear print superimposed almost exactly on top of a front (which trackers call a direct register). The clue to the double impact lies in the right toe impression: along the leading part of the outer margin there’s a slight crack and a sloping edge. The outer edge of the left clout is more like a vertical cliff. The left outer edge of the rear foot came down even with the left edge of the front, but the right outer edge landed a little inside.

It helps to have a track pattern when wrestling with such matters. The deer in the photo below was doing an ordinary walk (also called the diagonal walk, for reasons connected with the footfall sequence), and it left the zig-zag track pattern typical of the gait. Each “print” is actually made by two feet, first the front and then the rear on the same side.

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The next photo shows the double impact more clearly. In each impression you can see part of a front track with a rear on top and slightly behind (know in tracking circles as an indirect register). I call this the ordinary walk because it’s one of the most common gaits of both wild and domestic animals (and because the term is less abstruse than ‘diagonal walk’), but it’s only one of many variations on the walk. The patterns associated with the various kinds of walks vary, but if you can recognize the zig-zag arrangement of the ordinary walk you’re well on your way to understanding these and other gaits.

But how does that pattern come about? Gaits can be hard to understand, especially if you haven’t spent much time watching animals move. Fortunately there are lots of helpful videos available to make up for this lack. Here’s one that shows the ordinary walk really well: https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=animal+tracking+gaits&view=detail&mid=11CC299AF70EC963C01211CC299AF70EC963C012&FORM=VIRE.

You should go past the galloping dog and the trotting horse and focus on the third sequence, a horse walking in slow motion. You’ll see each hind foot landing in the place just vacated by the front foot on the same side. If you’re curious about the variations I mentioned there are a few later in the video. For example the first cat sequence is an overstep walk, in which the hind foot passes the front foot track and lands just ahead of it.

When a deer is moving faster or more erratically its tracks can look very different. In the next photo of a left rear print, the ridge separating the clouts widens out toward the front. Note also that the two toe impressions don’t look the same: the left one is relatively level but in the right one the tip area and right edge are deeper. This suggests an energetic turn to the right, and this deer was, in fact, making a playful jump to the right.

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The deer tracks in the photo below are even less like our idealized image of deer tracks. This animal was galloping from left to right in soft, moist sand, and its feet sank in so much that both the main toes and the dewclaws made deep impressions. These are both left feet, the front on the left and the rear on the right and the differences in the front and rear dewclaws show nicely. In the front track the dewclaws are closer to the main toes and are angled sideways, while the hind dewclaws are slightly farther behind and point more forward. The energetic movement caused the tips of the toes to sink more deeply than the back parts of the clouts. When the feet came up out of the sand the toe tips dragged and parts of the track walls were broken and scattered, adding to the atypical appearance of the tracks.

If we recognize the kinds of differences I’ve illustrated we can go far beyond basic track identification. Track variations can tell us about the movement and energy of the animal, what it was paying attention to, and maybe even why it was moving the way it was.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>