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April 2021 Natural Mystery Answered

posted May 7, 2021, 10:12 AM by Jonathan Poppele   [ updated May 11, 2021, 9:05 AM ]
Last month’s natural mystery was an unusual presentation—unusual enough that both I and at least one certified Track & Sign specialist misidentified it at first glance. Several of you were a quicker on the uptake than we were. Congratulations to Bren White, Kirsten Welge and Mike Holtz for correctly identifying the maker of this track.

We often joke that “all tracks are raccoon until proven otherwise.” In this case, we can’t prove otherwise. This is the right hind track of a raccoon. Though the presentation is a bit unusual, it simply isn’t a match for any other animal this size.

Kirsten starts off our analysis by outlining some of the key features of this track for us:
  • A relatively flat track floor, showing a large wide palm.
  • Imprints of four smooth, cigar-shaped fingers extend forward smoothly from a gentle arc of the palm.
  • A fifth toe set much further back on the right edge of the track.
  • Pinpricks of claw imprints are set about 1/8” ahead of the edge of each toe.
  • Size is 2.5” wide x 2.5” wide, not counting claws.

So we have five long, narrow toes connecting to a large, smooth palm. That’s a perfect description of a raccoon track. But just to be sure, let’s look at some other possibilities. Let’s try to prove otherwise.

Striped Skunk: This track looks surprisingly similar to a skunk track but, as Mike and Kirsten point out, is much too large. Striped skunk tracks are typically just over 1” wide. These prints measure more than two times that. Skunk toes are short and narrow, but don't register at an even depth or connect so clearly to the palm in the track. Mike also notes that the claws are registering too close to the toes for skunk.

Opossum: The Midwest's only resident marsupial also has five long toes on each foot, connecting to a large palm. But opossum splay their front toes widely, have a large opposable thumb on their hind foot, and show several distinct lobes in their palm pads.

Woodchuck: Ground hogs have five long, slender toes on their hind feet, and the arrangement of toes in this track resembles the 1-3-1 arrangement of a rodent hind foot. Woodchuck tracks are a little smaller than this, topping out at 2” when the toes are fully splayed. Like other squirrels, woodchucks usually show four distinct palm pads that form a broad, C-shaped arc behind the toes.

Badger: These stocky weasels show a clear negative space between the toes and the palm, their toes are proportionally wider, and the nails are longer. Badgers were once present at Cedar Creek, but have not been verified on the property in quite some time.

Otter: Kirsten points out that “Otter are in this size range, but they would show more bulbous toe tips, more negative space between palm and toe pads, a “wavy” edge to the palm/finger interface, and a more varied track floor showing lobing of the metapodial pad.

Having ruled out other possibilities, how did we determine which foot? Let’s start with the side of the body. Everyone who sent in an answer—even those who guessed a different species—identified this as a right foot. As Kirsten notes, this is “a right foot, as toe 1 is set furthest back and the shared metapodial pad for toes 3-4 is evident.

There are two features that help us distinguish this as a hind track. The first is the trailing edge of the palm pad. As Kirsten and Mike both note, raccoon front tracks typically show small mound or “notch” at the center of the trailing edge of the palm. Raccoon hind tracks have a smoother trailing edge, as we see here. The second is the arrangement of the toes. Raccoon hind tracks tend to splay less and are less symmetrical than fronts, with toe 1 set farther back on the foot.

So there we have it. The right hind track of a raccoon. Congratulations again to Bren, Kirsten and Mike for identifying this unusual print. And thanks to everyone who submitted an answer to this mystery.

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