Smithsonian National Zoological Park l Friends of the National Zoo



Animal Tracks: What Do They Reveal?

1. Building Background Knowledge

Can you identify the following tracks?

long print in sand with 5 toe prints

3 toe prints in sand

2 long prints and 2 short prints in snow

It is often very difficult to observe mammals directly or to follow them as they move from place to place. Many mammals are active at night, very secretive, or move over large areas. But all mammals that move on the ground have the potential to leave tracks. So one way to learn about such animals is to find and analyze their tracks, because different species generally have distinctive footprints. Tracks can sometimes be seen long after an animal has left the area.

In some cases, scientists can tell from a track the size and age of the animal that made it. A series of tracks may reveal whether an animal was running or walking, whether it was traveling with another animal, and in what direction. Tracks may show a predator following its prey. Animal tracks can be used to create lists of species that live in a certain area, as well as to determine what habitats they use most.

What do YOUR Tracks Reveal?

To begin learning about animal tracks, make your own tracks and analyze them with your class. All you need is a bit of pavement, a pan of water, chalk to outline your footprints, and a towel for drying your feet. You can do this activity with your shoes on or off.

Carefully dip each foot in the pan of water. As you step out of the water, you will leave wet footprints on the ground.

Make different kinds of footprints. Stand still. Walk, run, skip, or jump forward or backward.

Wet your feet again if you need to, and have another student outline your tracks with chalk in case they dry too quickly.

When you are done, look at your footprints, and see what they reveal about you.

  • Which parts of your feet touch the ground when you are standing?
  • When you walk, run, skip, or jump, which parts of your feet touch first? Which touch last?
Compare your footprints to those of your classmates.
  • What are the similarities and differences among different footprints?
  • What clues do you see in different footprints that tell you whether the person who made them was standing, walking, running, or doing something else?
  • Birds and other animals also leave tracks. What similarities and differences do you think you would find between two-legged and four-legged animals? Large animals and small animals? What differences will you find between birds, mammals, reptiles, and other types of animals?
Share your ideas about animal tracks and how they can be used to study animals and their habitats. Use the “Building Background Knowledge” worksheet your teacher is handing out to start your discussions, and save your written answers so you can discuss them again after watching the video clips and at the end of the outdoor activity.