Animal Detective

By Tom R.D. Meister | December 14, 2015
From Missouri Conservationist: Jan 2016

The phone was ringing when I got to my desk. I picked up the receiver, and almost before I could say — “How may I help you?” — a panicked voice on the other end shouted, “Yes! We just had our yard re-sodded, and something has peeled back the surface of our sod like a rug! Our front yard has been completely destroyed! Help!”

As a wildlife damage biologist, I am used to these types of calls. I work with the public, answering questions and solving wildlife problems. In order to solve a possible wildlife mystery, I must properly identify the offending animal. This usually involves some detective work, like searching for tracks in the mud, snow, or sand. It also involves investigating damage to land and bodies of water, as well as looking for a feather, piece of fur, or even droppings, also known as scat.

We Have a Mystery to Solve

Let’s return to the frantic caller whose yard had been destroyed by a mystery animal. The facts of the case included an urban yard damaged in the nighttime hours. The turf was rolled back, and the perpetrator foraged in the dirt underneath. What animals live in urban habitats? Coyotes, deer, skunks, and raccoons, to name just a few. To narrow it down further, the tracks had to be examined. Did they have toes? If so, how many? Turns out the animal in question had five toes on both the front and hind feet. That eliminates the deer, which has two toes, and the coyote, which has four toes. That leaves us with the skunk and the raccoon. Both forage at night, the time the crime was committed. But which has the dexterity needed to peel back turf? That’s right — the raccoon. Mystery solved.

Many years of education and experience have honed my ability to identify an animal by its track. By taking some time exploring outdoor Missouri, you, too, can become an animal detective.

Best Places to Look for Tracks

Snow, mud, and sand are all surfaces on which you are likely to find an imprint left by an animal.

Snow is an excellent medium on which to find tracks. Depending on the texture of the snow, the quality of the track can vary. Wet snow is the best at capturing animal tracks, leaving fine details behind. Snow also allows for tracks you can follow, providing clues as to what the animal was doing, such as searching for food, fleeing from a predator, or just playing in the snow.

Mud along the bank of a pond or creek records delicate details of a track and is a good place to look year-round. Most animals go to water to drink, and many species use streams or creeks as travel corridors. Mink, otters, and raccoons seek food near water, while beavers and muskrats build their dens in the water. These animals leave tracks everywhere along the bank, and the mud captures the details of each animal’s journey.

Out of the three surfaces, sand is the least reliable. Sand typically is too loose to hold a good track. When it comes to sand, the best place to find wildlife tracks is near the water’s edge. The sand will stay wet, allowing for pattern/ track identification. Since sand does not hold tracks as well as other surfaces, an animal detective must fall back on knowledge of habitats — and which animals live in that particular area.

Interpreting Tracks and Other Signs

Once you have spotted a track, you may need to gather other clues to positively identify the animal that left it.

First, follow the tracks. Where do they go? Do they lead to a tree and stop, or do they lead to a rock or brush pile? Do they lead in a straight path or do they meander? Do they follow an established trail made by other animals? The answers to these questions could mean the difference between a positive and false identification.

Next, look for distinct cuttings or markings on plants and trees nearby. Beavers gnaw at the base of trees, leaving piles of wood chips on the ground. Deer tear leaves and stems from plants, sometimes leaving ragged ends behind. Male deer rub their antlers on small trees in late summer to remove the velvet covering from antlers. Rabbits clip vegetation in a clean diagonal cut within a few inches of the ground. Feral hogs rub their bodies on trees, leaving behind mud and hair in a band that completely encircles the tree. Skunks and raccoons forage in fields and yards in search of beetle larvae and earthworms. These are just a few examples of how animals interact with their surroundings and the clues they leave behind.

Finally, look for scat, which can be an important discovery. It can reveal what the animal was eating. If the food source is evident, you may be able to track the animal to a certain location based upon that information. The food source can also narrow down the animal you are tracking. For instance, if the scat shows seeds, bones, fur, or insect parts, then the animal is most likely an omnivore — one that eats everything. Omnivores are animals such as raccoons, fox, or coyote. The location of scat is helpful, too. Some animals defecate in prominent places, such as on logs, on top of rocks, or in the middle of a trail, to mark their territories.

When it comes to solving wildlife mysteries, the more you know, the more successful you’ll be. The best way to learn about Missouri’s wildlife is in the wild.

Tips for Becoming an Animal Detective

Make It a Hobby

Illustrations can help in distinguishing tracks in the field, but reading animal tracks and signs is a skill that improves with practice. Tracks of the same animal can look completely different on various surfaces such as snow, sand, mud, or dust.

Gear Up

Carry the following gear when heading outdoors:

  • Smartphone or camera to record pictures of tracks and signs
  • Field guide that includes information on tracks, scat, nests/burrows, scent marking, distinct calls and sounds, food scrapes/other evidence of feeding, and other helpful details
  • Missouri Department of Conservation brochures and fact sheets
  • Notepad, pencil, and measuring tool

Be Observant

If you come across a track, take note of the following:

  • Size Claw/nail marks
  • Pad marks and shape of pads
  • Number of toes per foot
  • Marks made by toe webbing
  • Marks made by dragging belly or tail
  • Shape and size of hooves

Also note the distance between tracks and the overall pattern. A few questions to keep in mind:

  • Do the tracks follow in a fairly straight line, or do the left and right footprints point distinctly away?
  • Does the animal appear to have walked, hopped, or run from place to place?

Keep in mind that many animals walk in such a way that their hind prints appear ahead of their fore prints.

Get Outdoors and Explore

Winter is a great time to get outside and explore a conservation area, especially after a snowfall. By learning a few new skills and asking yourself some key questions, you are ready for the investigation to begin.


Raccoons’ feet are rather long and slender, with hairless soles. Raccoons prefer timbered habitat near water. They also may be found in urban and suburban areas. Dens are made in hollow trees, caves, rocky crevices, abandoned woodchuck burrows, and many other places. Raccoons eat both plant and animal matter. This includes persimmons, grapes, Osage oranges, blackberries, grasses, corn, acorns, pecans, and other nuts. They also eat crayfish, clams, fish, snails, a wide range of insects, frogs, snakes, bird eggs, mice, squirrels, rabbits, and more.

Striped Skunk

Striped skunks prefer forest borders, brushy field corners, fencerows, and open grassy fields broken by wooded ravines and rocky outcrops where permanent water is nearby. They have also adapted well to urban and city life. The den of a skunk is usually in the ground but occasionally is located in a stump, refuse dump, sewer system, rock pile, crevice in a cliff, farm building, woodpile, or haystack. Striped skunks forage most of the night, eating plant and animal foods. In spring and summer, insects, including bees, wasps, and larvae, are their preferred food. Skunks also consume many mice and rats, moles, shrews, ground squirrels, young rabbits, and chipmunks.

Skunk tracks look like domestic cat prints, except they show claw marks and five toes rather than four. Unlike cats, skunks can’t retract their claws, so each of their toe pads has a claw mark in front of it. Skunk tracks are also usually staggered, unlike domestic cat prints, which are often on top of each other. Striped skunk tracks average 2 inches long by 1 inch wide. The tracks of spotted skunks are similar, but smaller. The long nails of the front feet are the skunk’s identifying feature.


The beaver has webbed hind feet. In Missouri, beavers live in and along streams, rivers, marshes, and small lakes. In spring and fall, beavers eat woody and nonwoody vegetation. In summer, mostly nonwoody plants are consumed, while in the winter, mostly woody foods are eaten. Woody foods include new twigs, bark, and new bark growth of a variety of trees and woody vines. These trees and vines range from willow and cottonwood to oaks, hickories, sycamores, and wild grapevines. Nonwoody foods include corn, pond lilies, watercress, and many other plants.


This medium-sized mammal has short front legs with small feet and stronger hind legs with large feet. Muskrats are semiaquatic, living in marshes, sloughs, streams, rivers, ponds, and lakes. Muskrats dig homes in a stream or pond bank or build large houses out of vegetation in the shallow water. In marshy areas, muskrats eat rootstocks, stems of cattail and three-square bulrush, and the seeds of lotus. In other areas of the state, white clover, corn, and bluegrass are preferred. Muskrats living along Ozark streams eat freshwater clams, snails, crayfish, fish, frogs, and aquatic plants.

Feral Hog

Feral hogs, while not wildlife, forage heavily on acorns and compete directly with native species such as deer and turkey for this important fall food. They also commonly eat the eggs of ground-nesting birds as well as anything else they encounter. This includes reptiles, amphibians, and small mammals. Feral hogs are also known to kill and eat a variety of wildlife, including deer fawns.

The key point in distinguishing a hog track from a deer track is the rounded or blunt tip of the toes. The toes of a hog track on a firm surface tend to be more splayed than a deer track. A hog track also appears rounded or square when compared to a deer track of similar width. Deer tracks in contrast appear heart shaped and have more pointed or sharply tipped toes. The presence of dew claw marks with feral hog or white-tailed deer tracks is not an indicator of sex as commonly thought. Dew claw marks associated with any hog or deer track simply means the animal was running or stepping on a soft surface.


Coyotes occupy almost all Missouri habitats from urban and inner city to semi-open brushy country, along timber edges, and in open farmlands. Rabbits and mice make up almost two-thirds of the coyote diet. The rest of their diet is from prey, carrion, and plants such as persimmons. Coyotes typically walk or trot in an alternating pattern — less common gaits include the two-print trot and a lope or gallop in a four-print pattern. Oval tracks are 2.5 to 3.5 inches long, and usually show footpads and claw marks for at least the front two toes. Trails may meander, but are often straight-line routes.

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This Issue's Staff

Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld
Art Director - Cliff White
Associate Editor - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Heather Feeler
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Staff Writer - Joe Jerek
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Les Fortenberry
Designer - Marci Porter
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Circulation - Laura Scheuler