Who's print is that? may be the question most often asked to outdoor educators when walking through the snow with students. But the identify of a critter is only one piece of information in a much larger story. This past month, 5th graders from Bluff Elementary and Claremont Christian Academy and 4th graders from North Charlestown Community School were taught how read prints in the snow to tell the story of animals that are active in winter.
The first step was to survey the snowscape to take in the big picture. Any disturbances in the snow could be a sign that an animal moved through that space. But how do we know if it was an animal or something else? Animals usually create a path as they move from one place to another, while snow melting or falling off buildings and trees has no distinct beginning or end. Surveying the snowscape helped them to narrow down what kind of animal(s) may have moved through the space as well as how many, if they crossed paths, and if they changed speed as they moved.
There are four main patterns that animals move in. These are called gait patterns.
Walkers create a straight line like a humans, giving the appearance they are two-legged. This is because their feet are similar in size and shape and they often put their hind foot in the spot their front foot made when moving. Cats, dogs, and hooved animals belong to this group.
Waddlers move both feet on one side of their body, one at a time, then shift to the other side. Their bodies are closer to the ground than walkers. The waddlers' tracks consist of both their smaller front feet and their larger hind feet. Bears, skunks, opposums (pictured above), raccoons, muskrats, and porcupines are in this group.
Hoppers have large hind feet that are much longer than their front feet. They land on their front feet and their large hind feet land in front of their front feet. All four feet are seen each set of tracks with the large hind feet in the front. Rabbits, squirrels and rodents belong to this group.
Bounders have long narrow bodies and short legs. One front foot lands before the other and then they lift off, allowing the back feet to take their place, leaving 2 hind prints in each set. Sometimes 3 prints are left when this isn't exact. Weasels, fisher, and otter are in this group.
The second step was to zoom into a set of tracks and gather as much information as possible by answering the following questions. They used Lynn Levine's Mammal Tracks and Scat Life-Size Pocket Guide to determine answer(s) to question 6.
1. How many tracks are in the set?
2. Are the prints the same size or different?
3. Are toes or claws present?
4. Which direction was the animal going?
5. How big is the animal?
6. What kind of animal could it be?
The third step was to follow the tracks in one direction or another. They split up into 2 groups. One group went backwards to find out where the animal came from and the other group proceeded forwards to see where it went. Along the way, they stopped at places where the tracks changed or they saw other animal signs (scat, pee, hair, feathers, etc). Each time collecting evidence, asking questions, and inferring what may have happened. They had to be careful to continue to follow the correct tracks, especially when other animals tracks crossed its path.
The final step was to come back together and share what they found out adding to the tale of one individual animal. There were so many more tales and so much left to learn from the other prints in the snow, so each pair of students were sent off with a guide to explore some of the other stories. When they came back together again, they did their best to piece together all the evidence to tell the tale of what may have happened in that place since the last snowfall.