Smithsonian National Zoological Park l Friends of the National Zoo



Animal Tracks – What Do They Reveal?

Go Deeper: Additional Resources and Activities

Alternative Track Trap Protocol for Small Animals

For tracking smaller animals, like mice, you can make a “track plate” using plastic rain guttering. Click here for more information on how to make track plates for small mammals.

Make a Specimen Collection of Tracks

Preserve your tracks for a classroom specimen collection by making plaster casts. Click here for more information on how to make plaster casts.

Other Activity Ideas and Extensions

There are lots of other ways to use tracks in classroom lesson plans. Click here for other activity ideas and lesson plan extensions.

Alternative Track Trap Protocol for Small Animals

For smaller animals, such as mice, chipmunks and shrews, sand traps may not work.

For these small animals, you can make a simple track plate using plastic rain guttering, ink pads and packing tape.

Cut the guttering into 1.5 to 2 foot lengths and use duct tape to hinge two pieces together to form a tube. Glue a black ink pad to each opening, then place a piece of 2-inch contact paper (or clear plastic packing tape) from one end of the tube to the other, and tuck the ends under the ink pads. Be sure to have the sticky side up.

Place a small piece of bait in the center of the tube. Small animals attracted to the bait will walk across the ink pad and then across the tape, leaving their footprints behind.

It is simple to keep a permanent record (specimen collection) of the small mammal tracks from your track plate! Simply take the contact paper out of the tube, tape it to a piece of white paper, label with date, location, collector, bait, other notes, and file appropriately.

Preserving Animal Tracks

Preserve wildlife tracks for future study. You can preserve tracks using several different methods.

Drawings: Draw a picture of the track, and label it with measurements and other data, such as the date it was found, weather conditions, habitat, and other animal tracks found in the same location.

Photography: Use a camera to take close-up pictures of the animal track. If there is more than one track, use your zoom function or step back to take a picture of the tracks together. To show scale, put a small ruler in the photograph, or use a familiar object, such as a coin. As you take pictures, consider whether multiple tracks were made by the same animal, as well as what direction the tracks point toward and whether the tracks suggest regular movements of animals between two locations.

Dig: If your track was made in soft mud that isn’t already completely dry, it may be possible cut the track out of the mud. Carefully dig away from the edge of the track to preserve its shape. Gently lift the track out of the ground, and place it in a container that will hold it steady.

Trace: Trace a track by placing clear plastic wrap over the track and outlining it with a permanent felt tip pen. Plaster cast: A favorite method for preserving good tracks is using plaster of paris to make a mold. Use the following steps:

  1. Remove any loose bits of soil, twigs, leaves, and other litter from track.
  2. Spray the track with shellac.
  3. Form a two-inch wide strip of cardboard or tin into a ring large enough to surround the track. Press it firmly into the ground, leaving one inch above ground to form a mold for the plaster.
  4. Mix about two cups of plaster of paris in a container, adding water slowly until the mix is about as thick as heavy cream. Pour carefully into the mold until the plaster is about to the top. Allow plaster to harden at least 15 minutes before handling it. If the soil is damp, hardening may take longer.
  5. When the cast is hardened, lift the cast out, remove the ring, and clean any dirt from the cast by carefully scraping it with the edge of a plastic spoon or knife, and gently washing with a damp cloth.
  6. Back in the classroom, apply a thin coating of petroleum jelly, such as Vaseline, to the track and surface of the cast. Place it on a flat surface and surround the casting with a two inch strip of cardboard as before.
  7. Mix plaster of paris and pour it into the mold, making certain that the top surface of the casting is smooth and level with the mold. If you plan to use the casting as a wall plaque, place a loop of wire in back of the casting while the plaster is still soft. Allow two hours for plaster to harden.
  8. Carefully remove the mold when the plaster is dry. Separate the two layers and wipe the excess petroleum jelly from the face of the cast and track. Use fine sandpaper to smooth the surface. Wash the completed cast in running water.
  9. When the cast is thoroughly dry, paint the inside of the track with India ink or black poster paint. Label each cast with the species name, location collected, date, and name of person (class) who made the cast. A coat of clear shellac may be applied to protect and preserve the casting.

Other Activity Ideas and Extensions

  1. If you have live animals that can be safely handled in your classroom, document their tracks using one of the methods described on the “Preserving Animal Tracks” page [link back to that page]. Label each track with the species, the date, and the animal’s activity. If there is more than one animal in the classroom, compare the size, shape, and parts of their tracks. This is a great introductory activity for learning to interpret tracks in nature.
  2. Check daily newspapers and radio and television news for articles and stories about how local land is managed. Discuss whether current land-management practices encourage the maintenance or restoration of healthy ecosystems with the ability to sustain wildlife. Discussions about news can help students select study sites for their outdoor activity.
  3. Experiment using different types of food as bait to determine what foods attract different animals. For example, a carnivore might be more attracted to meat than seeds. Record your findings on the data chart to see if the bait that most attracts a particular animal matches its natural food habits.
  4. Repeat the Outdoor Activity in different habitats, such as your backyard or a community park, and during different seasons. Compare the results. What similar or different animals are living in each of the habitats? Are the animals living in the habitat year-round?
  5. After students finish their outdoor activity, let them pretend they are biologists from another planet. Ask them to write a news flash describing their discoveries and the track evidence they used, as well as where animals were found, how and why they moved the way they did, and what they concluded from the evidence about the animals’ habitat needs.