Smithsonian National Zoological Park l Friends of the National Zoo



Animal Tracks: What Do They Reveal?

3. Outside Explorations

In this activity, you will be using track traps, baited with different types of food determine what foods attract different animals. For example, a carnivore might be more attracted to tuna than to seeds. You will be working in teams of 2-3 students each.

You will need a copy of the student worksheet “Animal Track Data” that your teacher will give to each group. You will also need the following supplies:

  • Playground sand
  • Bait such as canned tuna, peanut butter, rolled oats, sunflower seeds
  • Q-tips (optional)
  • Field guide to animal tracks
  • Metric ruler or measuring tape
  • Clipboard
  • Pencil or pen
  • Map of study site (school or park map)

Select your track trap locations

Think carefully about where animals are likely to travel, such as along a path or a stream and select one of those areas as a trap site. Some questions you can consider when selecting a trap site are:

  • Might an animal be traveling to or from water?
  • Are there trails through the field or forest an animal might use?
  • Are there sites animals might be especially attracted to, such as school garbage dumpster?

Make a track trap with playground sand. Pour sand onto a patch of ground about one meter square and smooth it with your hand or a trowel.

Animal tracks can also be found naturally in many places. Look for tracks in a muddy puddle, along a stream, on a sandy beach, in the soft mud after a rain, and in new snow.

Bait your track trap

You may use bait at your trap or a scent to lure animals to your track trap. To use just a scent, dip a Q-tip in a strong smelling food, and then stand it up in the middle of your trap. When mammals smell the bait on the Q-tip, they will cross the sand to sniff it, leaving tracks behind.

Use a map of your study site to label where you placed your track trap, and what kind of bait you used.

Leave your trap overnight and return the next day return to see if there are tracks.

Identifying tracks found in your trap

Use your worksheet to collect data from your track trap and compare with information in a field guide to mammal tracks to determine what species visited your track trap.

Animal tracks can be hard to identify. If animals use the same paths, their tracks may overlap, or an animal may walk back and forth over its own tracks. A track may not have all the details of toes or claws needed for a positive identification. Animals, even within the same species, vary in size and weight due to age or sex, which can make a track difficult to interpret.

Remember that even experienced scientists can have trouble identifying an animal by its tracks. If you are unsure which animal left the track, list all the species it could possibly be.