Animal Track Analysis


The elements of visual perception are the core of nearly every aspect of tracking. They form the basis for:

It is, however, one thing to acknowledge the elements of visual perception as the core of tracking and yet another to have or develop a system for using that core. Each aspect of tracking requires a different system with the elements of visual perception as the core.

Track analysis requires a large investment of time studying the visual characteristics of the track:

Track analysis is, above all, the means through which the tracker accumulates and stores information: Track analysis is what fills the "file cabinet". Moreover, constant and careful track analysis will eventually allow the tracker to know what should be in a track even though everything may not be physically present: the tracker will know and see the unseen.

The analytical system presented here makes use of the elements of Line, Shape, Positive and Negative Space, and Visual Flow. The other elements of visual perception will have little or no active role in track analysis.

Analyzing a track means to look with purpose; it means to study, question, compare, absorb, learn, experience, become, evolve, and grow.

To do this, we should begin with the basic aspects of the track and work gradually to the more subtle features: we should "ease into it", and allow the track to speak to us in its own fashion at its own pace.

So, to begin with, we should recognize and study the primary basic shape of the track: is it round, oval, or wedge-shaped? This should be followed by observation of secondary and tertiary basic shapes (i.e. the basic shapes within the primary basic shape and the shapes within those shapes).

Indeed, the perception and study of basic shapes could lead the tracker from the primary basic shape to well beyond the tertiary shapes.

Once the basic shapes have been examined, they must be studied again with a more critical eye.

What are the subtleties? What refinements need to be made in what we initially perceived? At this point, the student will be sharpening awareness and studying the nuances of toe shapes, heel pad shapes, and claw shapes. Further scrutiny will move the observer into the realms of symmetry and asymmetry, position relationships, size and shape relationships, positive and negative spaces, and visual flow. Each of these categories of visual analysis are discussed in more detail below. As the tracking student spends time using them in the study of tracks, a vast storehouse of experience and knowledge will be accumulated.

Categories of Animal Track Analysis

In each of the categories below, only a selection of possibilities are illustrated. There are many others not shown here; just enough are presented for the student to get the idea. More can, and should be added later when this system is tested in the field. The order in which the categories are listed is not necessarily the order in which they will be perceived. Generally, the larger, more basic shapes should be observed first, but others may initially vie for the tracker's attention - this is fine! Observe and make note of what the particular analysis category has to tell you, then proceed in the order which seems most natural. The main thing is to make certain to study all the categories carefully and to study them all more than once before leaving the track.


Primary Design Shape1. Primary Basic Shape

The primary basic shape is the simplest, overall shape which surrounds the track (fig. 1). Subtleties and nuances are not important at this stage, just the simplest, general, most geometric shape such as a circle, oval, square, rectangle, triangle, heart, or diamond shape.

Irregular Shape

Usually a geometric shape will suffice, but sometimes the primary basic shape will be irregular and non-geometric (fig. 2). Simply view or draw the shape in its clearest, most basic form, and don't be concerned about details yet.



Irregular Shape

Sometimes, a seemingly irregular shape can be reduced to two or three geometric shapes (fig. 3). Often a set of tracks may be so worn that only the primary shape is still apparent. Even so, knowledge of which basic shape belongs to the tracks of which animal may make identification possible.



Secondary Basic

2. Secondary Basic Shapes

The secondary basic shapes are the largest shapes found within the primary basic shape. As with the primary shape, they should be viewed and drawn as simple in form as possible with little or no detail. (Fig. 4). When an irregular shape is altered to two or three basic shapes (as in Fig. 3), it is actually the secondary basic shapes which are being used for clarification and simplification of the primary shape. Secondary basic shapes usually include total toe area and the basic heel pad shape. In Figure 4, this amounts to just two shapes: total toe area (arc shape) and heel pad (triangle).



Tertiary Basic

3. Tertiary Basic Shapes

Tertiary basic shapes are the shapes within secondary basic shapes and also smaller shapes which stand by themselves. They are generally individual toes, separate or joined parts of heel pads, and individual claws (Fig. 5). After the tertiary shapes have been observed or drawn, the tracker may need to continue on into the quaternary shapes or beyond; the process will continue through progressively smaller shapes until all basic shapes in the track have been accounted for.




4. Modification of Basic Shapes

Once all of the basic shapes have been studied, they must be looked at again and/or redrawn. At this point, all of the basic shapes will be scrutinized intently for nuances and subtleties within the shapes (Fig. 6). As with the basic shapes, there are primary, secondary, and tertiary shape modifiers. For example, the primary modifications in Figure 6 are a) making the toe more round than oval; b) changing a round toe to one that is more bean-shaped; c) making a convex edge concave; d) widening the bottom of the toe and making the corner more angular; e) changing convex lines around the heel pad to concave; f) straightening lines on the right lobe of the heel pad; g) flattening the bottom of the central lobe of the heel pad; and h) making the edge of the left lobe of the heel pad more angular. While the tracker is going through the process of shape modification, attention must be paid simultaneously to all the other categories of track analysis. It must be noted that track analysis is not a linear process, it is circular or spiral. The tracker does not move from one category of analysis to another in a straight line. In actuality, the eye and the mind should be allowed to flow back and forth returning to each category many times and moving to other categories in a seemingly random, unrestricted, non-logical fashion. The tracker may want to allow things to flow of their own accord. However, when drawing tracks, greater care must be taken in choosing track analysis categories. Drawing, too, is circular and non-linear, but greater care must be taken in choosing the order of things. For instance, if the tracker begins modifying basic shapes without first having studied and adjusted negative spaces, size relations, position relations, and visual flow, the drawing will be incorrect no matter how much shapes are modified.


Negative Space

5. Positive and Negative Space

Not only should the positive parts of the track (toes, heel pads, and claws) be studied, but the spaces between the positive elements must be viewed with equal intensity (Fig 7). Careful examination of the spaces between tracks and track parts can tell us just as much as looking at the parts themselves. To look at only the positive elements of the track is to ignore half of the track. Consideration should be given to the spaces between the toes, the spaces between the claws, the spaces between toes and heel pad, and the spaces between toes and claws. Moreover, the space between one track and another will be a key factor in determining the correct gait pattern. When drawing, negative space cannot be ignored; otherwise, the finished product will likely be an inaccurate and distorted depiction of the original track.



6. Symmetry and Asymmetry

Very few tracks come close to being symmetrical. Almost all are asymmetrical to some extent, and some are extremely asymmetrical (Fig. 8a). The asymmetrical characteristics of a track are especially useful in determining right feet from left feet, and in deciding the rate of speed in a track pattern (Fig. 8b). When drawing, it is extremely important to observe and depict asymmetry. The human eye and mind tend to register and draw objects as symmetrical when they are not; it is necessary to strengthen the ability to see asymmetrical characteristics.















Size and Shape

7. Size and Shape Relationships

Each shape in a track is related to all of the other shapes in the same track and in other tracks. The size of one toe in relation to other toes, and the size of one track in relation to other tracks will be instrumental in helping to determine right from left and front from rear feet (Fig. 9). For instance, the outer toe of a deer hoof is usually larger than the inner toe; this will tell us right foot from left. Also, the front foot is larger than the rear foot, and the dew claws on the front foot are larger than on the rear foot. Thus, it is not difficult to verify which feet belong where in a deer track pattern and which gait the pattern represents. Early on in a drawing it is important to correctly render shapes in their proper relationship to other shapes. To study and compare shape sizes is to see relationships and to view parts within the context of the total picture.


Position Relationships

8. Position Relationships

The spatial relationship of shapes are a crucial part of track analysis and identification. For instance, in the Canine family, one of the best ways to separate one species from another is to study the position of the outer toes in relation to the inner toes (Fig. 10a). The same can be said for telling Cat family from Dog family (compare Fig. 10a to 10b). Also, relative position of shapes can be instrumental in determining right foot from left foot. For example, in four-footed animals, the inner toe is usually higher than the outer toe, and the second toe from the inner toe is usually higher than all other toes (Fig. 10b). One of the initial steps in drawing is to check the spatial relationships of shapes. This category of track analysis will have great bearing on the accuracy of a drawing and on the ability of the tracker to correctly identify the track maker. The best way to check position relationships is to place a string vertically and horizontally over the track at different key places (usually along the edge of a secondary or tertiary basic shape). Then study where other shapes fall in relation to the line.

Position Relationships

For example, it is always wise to observe where the outer toes fall in relation to a vertical line placed at the widest points on the heel pad (Fig. 11). The string line over the track can be accurately transferred to a drawing by using a ruler or a straight-edge of some sort.




Visual Flow

9. Visual Flow

Visual flow is the direction track shapes move in relation to the vertical or horizontal axis of the track. Some toes may register along a nearly vertical line; whereas, others may angle away from the vertical (Fig 12a). One way to tell the tracks of a dog from a fox is that the axis of each outer toe angles away from the vertical in the dog and the fox's outer toes tend to line up more vertically. In some cases, all toes on a foot may lie parallel to each other and, at other times, the toes may spread or fan out (Fig.12b). The front and rear feet of the raccoon, for instance, may be distinguished by the fact that the toes of the front foot tend to fan out, and the toes of the rear foot tend to parallel each other. Toes may appear to be straight and others may look curved (Fig. 12c). For example, curving toes are key indicators on the front foot of the groundhog and on the rear foot of the frog. The horizontal axis through the toes may be straight or, more likely, curved. Attention should be directed to whether the curving line is sharp or gradual (Fig 12d). A curved line axis through the toes can often be instrumental in clarifying whether a track was made by a front foot or a rear foot. For instance, the curved line, horizontal axis on the toes of the front foot of the river otter is more sharply curved than on the rear foot.

Visual Flow

Visual flow can also play a major role in distinguishing one gait from another (Fig. 13). An imaginary line drawn from one track to another or from one pair of tracks to another will help clarify the track pattern and make identification easier. The element of perception, rhythm, will also come into play here. A line from one track to another is visual flow; the way in which visual flow repeats itself is rhythm. Visual flow and rhythm are very closely interwoven when it comes to viewing and drawing track patterns.