April 2024 Natural Mystery Answered

We had lots of correct responses to last month’s Natural Mystery, despite the unusual track pattern. Congratulations to Kirsten Welge, John Bauhs, Maria Wesserle, Alan Holzer, and Adrian Iacovino for correctly identifying the track maker and which foot made each track visible in the photo.

As Adrian succinctly put it, "these are the tracks of an Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floidanus) in a three-legged bounding gait. The tracks from right to left are front right, front left, hind left."

In analyzing this trail, the trackers all noted how the distinctive shape and asymmetry of the tracks pointed to a member of the Leopridae family. As Allan put it, “The toes of the front tracks are arranged asymmetrically, in a kind of 'j' shape.” Maria and John describe the front tracks as “flame-shaped” and “candle flame-like” respectively, while Kirsten notes that four toes in each of the front tracks “form a candy-cane arc.”

Going in a little deeper, both Kirsten and Maria point out that the first track in the group, the right front track, shows five toes. Kirsten notes that this toe “registers opposite and slightly below the outermost toe in the J constellation.” She also notes that “narrow claw marks register 2-3 mm above the toe impressions,” and that “no details are visible from a metapodial pad.” 

Kirsten and Maria each go on the analyze the hind track. Kirsten reports “four teardrop impressions appear in a more symmetrical, rectangular-ish layout: two inner toes set close together, trailed by two outer toes. This configuration is similar to a tiny dog track without a metapodial pad.” Maria similarly notes that the hind track is “also asymmetrical, though to a lesser degree than the fronts.

Maria then explains that “the placement of the hind foot on the left side of the track pattern (relative to direction of movement) and the dropped toe 5 indicate we are looking at a left hind.” Kirsten similarly notes that “one outer toe (T2) clearly registers ahead the other (T5), making this our cottontail's left hind.

In narrowing down to species, Kirsten points out that eastern cottontail is the only Leporid found at Cedar Creek. Alan and Maria note that the other Leporids in the region, the snowshoe hare and white-tailed jackrabbit, both leave larger tracks. 

In interpreting the track pattern, everyone noted the absence of a clear right hind track. Kirsten and Alan additionally noted that the left hind track appeared markedly deeper than the other two, suggesting that foot was taking more weight. As everyone surmised, this is basically a three-legged bounding pattern. It may seem surprising that a rabbit could get around easily on just three legs, but it really shouldn’t. Asymmetrical gaits, like the baseline bounding gait of cottontails, adapt pretty well to three legs. A rabbit need not have a catastrophic injury to shift to a three-legged gait. A sore foot or painful joint might be enough to have it keep its weight off one foot while moving about.

It appears that this rabbit was avoiding putting weight on its right hind, but not keeping that foot completely off the ground. Everyone noted that there was a “small scuff” located above and to the right of the left hind track—about where we might expect a right hind to register. John explicitly identified this “scuff” as the partial registration of the right hind, writing “the fourth foot is evident as two small toe/claw marks.

Congratulations again to Kirsten, John, Maria, Alan, and Adrian for their correct interpretations of this unusual trail. This was just one of several interesting trails I found while strolling through the bison enclosure at Cedar Creek last month. The enclosure will be open for us to explore at our upcoming Cedar Creek Wildlife Survey on June 1. I hope you can join us.

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