Thinking Clearly and Identifying Animal Tracks
That time a rat became a snake…
When I was relatively new to animal tracking but knew just enough to be dangerous, I found myself looking at a series of raven tracks during a tracking class in a southern California desert. It was immediately obvious that the raven had landed, walked a few yards and then turned and took flight.
We were asked to look at these tracks and interpret what had happened. As the group of about 10 students and I analyzed the tracks in the sand, we began to develop a story that once complete went something like this: “The raven landed and walked a few yards and attacked a snake. It then then took flight while still battling the snake.”
We could clearly see the wispy marks where the snake had grazed the ground while being carried off by the raven. We could also see where the raven pecked a spot on the ground and picked up the snake.
Our instructors, Mark Elbroch and Jon Young, looked amused. The entire snake story was based on a few marks in the sand that turned out to be tail drags of kangaroo rats. The raven had simply pecked at a white spot in the sand and then took flight – somehow we turned this into a pretty amazing story.
In retrospect, there is a valuable lesson here and it’s one of the most valuable lessons of tracking – how to think. The way we humans interpret and make conclusions from evidence is often based on weak or flawed logic and can lead to wrongful convictions in courts or even worse.
How we make mistakes…
The process of accurately interpreting animal tracks and sign is much like a detective building a case. It starts with carefully analyzing the evidence and then making a series of premises in which to make larger conclusions.
- All canines are mammals. Coyotes are a canine. Therefore all coyotes are mammals.
- All canines have a strong sense of smell. Coyotes are a canine. Therefore all coyotes have a strong sense of smell.
On the surface, this seems like a simple concept. But it can get more complicated. Here is an examples where things go wrong:
- Coyote tracks show 4 toes and claws, this track has 4 toes and claws, therefore this is a coyote track.
This statement is incorrect because it is based on the premise that ONLY coyote tracks have these traits when in reality, many species can show 4 toes and claws. The fallacy of this argument becomes obvious in this example:
- Coyotes have hair, this animal has hair, therefore this animal is a coyote.
I offer these concepts in order to encourage careful consideration of your assumptions and the logical leaps we sometimes make. See this excellent list of other logical fallacies. When we were analyzing the raven tracks, we made several mistakes:
- We all assumed the kangaroo rat tail drags were snake tracks despite insufficient evidence.
- We then assumed that the kangaroo rat tracks were the same age as the raven tracks.
- We assumed that because the tracks were in the same place that they were connected in some way (the raven hunting a snake).
- Finally, we probably assumed that because the instructors were asking us this question it must be interesting in some way.
When I teach tracking, I encourage discussions that focus on the traits we are seeing in the tracks before we ever begin to talk about what species it may be. Through a discussion of the characteristics of the track, we push our perception further and hopefully can come to concensus on what we are observing before making conclusions. Tracks can be messy. It may be that what we thought was 5 toes is revealed through analysis to actually the result of 2 overlapping tracks from a 4-toed animal. We are often too eager to jump to conclusions and answer all our questions before we’ve gathered sufficient data.
The dangers of certainty…
People often send me emails with animal tracks to identify. Often it is obvious that the person wants me to confirm their assumption that the track is from some exotic and rare species rather than some similar common species (see: Occam’s razor). When I inevitably let them down and tell them it is only a domestic dog or a raccoon, I am sometimes met with fierce and unyielding resistance. No matter the level of proof I provide or explanation I give, they remain utterly unconvinced.
This is a phenomenon known as argument from ignorance and is a well studied behavior that leads people to make profound claims based extremely weak or no evidence. Neil DeGrasse Tyson does an amazing job of explaining this in the video below. He uses the example of UFO’s and notes that the “U” stands for “Unidentified”, yet people somehow decide that because we don’t know what it is it must be alien visitors.
I’ve seen some incredible examples of this – from photos of supposed mountain lions that turn out to be house cats – to upside down horse tracks being reported as mountain lion tracks. I once even had a group of 4 squirrel tracks in mud reported to be mountain lion tracks.
There’s another related and interesting cognitive bias known as the Dunning-Krueger Effect that states that unskilled individuals tend to vastly overestimate their ability while highly skilled individuals tend to underestimate their ability.
See this description from Wikipedia:
Dunning and Kruger proposed that, for a given skill, incompetent people will:
- tend to overestimate their own level of skill;
- fail to recognize genuine skill in others;
- fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy;
- recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they are exposed to training for that skill.
This helps explain how people with no tracking experience can be so certain of their answers and yet be so unwilling to consider alternate perspectives. I do not present this information just as a way to understand and justify the silly actions of the “incompetent”, but also a valuable lesson for us all. We humans are very bad at estimating our skill levels. That means all of us.
How to avoid making mistakes…
So, humans make a lot of logical errors. It is through track identification that I became aware of my own tendency to jump to answers too quickly and to make conclusions from very weak information. It is also through tracking that I went from a beginner that thought I knew everything to a fairly experienced and accomplished tracker that often feels overwhelmed by my profound lack of knowledge.
Here are my recommendations for thinking clearly and avoiding mistakes:
- Take time to carefully observe the characteristics of the track before making conclusions.
- Be extremely cautious making conclusions and make sure they are based on evidence and sound logic.
- Be skeptical of what other people say and formulate your own decisions based on your own observations. I encourage you to be especially skeptical of “experts.” Ask lots of questions and require evidence.
- Be wary of the incredible. I have found many incredible tracks and interpreted some amazing stories. But they must be substantiated. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.”
- Be flexible in your conclusions as new information becomes available.
- Only be as certain in your conclusion as the evidence allows.
- Come up with a list of the top 3 possibilities and discuss the traits in the track that support / refute each species.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this and some other ideas on avoiding common tracking mistakes and your own mental process. Feel free to comment below.