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Thinking Clearly and Identifying Animal Tracks

Published on July 29, 2014 under Articles


 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.

Deductive reasoning is the process of linking premises and following certain logical rules such that the conclusions must be true. Here are some examples:

  1. All canines are mammals. Coyotes are a canine. Therefore all coyotes are mammals.
  2. 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:

  1. 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:

  1. 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:

  1. We all assumed the kangaroo rat tail drags were snake tracks despite insufficient evidence.
  2. We then assumed that the kangaroo rat tracks were the same age as the raven tracks.
  3. We assumed that because the tracks were in the same place that they were connected in some way (the raven hunting a snake).
  4. 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.


The Dunning-Krueger Effect

See this description from Wikipedia:

Dunning and Kruger proposed that, for a given skill, incompetent people will:

  1. tend to overestimate their own level of skill;
  2. fail to recognize genuine skill in others;
  3. fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy;
  4. recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they are exposed to training for that skill.[5]

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:

  1. Take time to carefully observe the characteristics of the track before making conclusions.
  2. Be extremely cautious making conclusions and make sure they are based on evidence and sound logic.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.”
  5. Be flexible in your conclusions as new information becomes available.
  6. Only be as certain in your conclusion as the evidence allows.
  7. 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.


  1. Robert Mellinger


    Thanks so much for this article. I became involved in tracking almost two years ago primarily out of a wider interest in how quality of thinking/perceiving is one of the best places to begin understanding ourselves and humanity ecologically. I think tracking is one of the best tools for helping people become aware of their own thinking and the quality of their perception—it certainly has been for me. This is the main way I have been working with tracking with others and it develops an awareness that carries into all areas of life. I would like to see the tracking community offer their skills more generally as pedagogy that targets more rigorous and dynamic thinking in context or in the field—whether that’s in a conversation or in the forest. Within the tracking community I think there is a great deal of room for us to refine the ways we cultivate our thinking. I have talked about this a bit with Craig Holdrege at The Nature Institute who is not part of the tracking community, but whose work focuses squarely on the topic of your post. I recommend his recent book, Thinking Like a Plant. I think this topic is a place for the tracking community to build bridges with other efforts concerned with observer reliability and thinking on your feet, so to speak.

    Thanks again for giving voice to this aspect of tracking!


  2. Filip T.


    I want to echo Rob’s comments and agree this is excellent and touches on aspects of tracking that I think are at the core of what can bring greater accountability and credibility to this set of skills. Thank you, Jonah!

    And, “Thinking Like a Plant” is on my reading list!


  3. Steve Engel

    An interesting read Jonah, thank you very much. In terms of exploring the subject of thinking clearly and identifying animal tracks (neither of which I claim to always do) I offer up two anecdotes. #1: I remember encountering a beautiful, clear set of tracks that went on for a number of yards in fine dust, giving me all the information I needed to identify who made them. And for a good hour I was completely stumped. This was in coastal California and I’d been tracking for about five years, though just two or three in that habitat. So being stymied wasn’t completely unexpected. But I was so stumped that extra-terrestrials were among my top three possibilities. The process of coming to a confident conclusion of opossum reminded me of an experience just a few years earlier when I had identified my first rufous-sided towhee on my own. Besides careful observation that included note taking (important because it slowed me down and forced me to see more accurately), a part of the process in each case involved placing faith in an ultimate source of knowledge – i.e., that all of my observations would match one (and just one) of hundreds of entries in the field guides. Provided I made enough observations that is. In rushing to an answer, too few observations might have convinced me these five, finger-like toed tracks must be a raccoon, albeit a strange one, or, for a more extreme example of deductive reasoning gone awry, that the red-eyed bird must be a grebe. What really sticks with me about each of those experiences though, is the feeling of accomplishment I felt for figuring it out on my own (thank you very much Roger Tory Peterson) and feeling one hundred percent, unshakeable confidence in my conclusion. There’s no other feeling like it. It became a memory, a benchmark, against which to measure in the future. A benchmark which, for reasons unknown, I didn’t consult in anecdote #2: One day about ten years later, on an island in S.E. Alaska, I “clearly saw” the shape of a moose hoof print in a grizzly’s front paw track. Never mind that due to recent glacial history moose are not even known to occur on this island. I thought about that but then reasoned that they must have finally made it to there. It was/is bound to happen and here I am before it gets written about in the books. Nothing exceptional about that, right? Or maybe, for some reason, my mind just wanted to see a moose track and, when I first encountered it, this particular bear track fit the bill. In the mud and seaweed of the intertidal zone the claws had been washed out and the toes blurred together into one long arc that formed the edge of a hoof. The trailing edge of the heel pad mirrored the shape and together they formed a pointy cloven hoof. At least, it seemed that way to me. Trying to piece together a trail of a walking moose proved difficult however, which necessitated a second and much closer look. After realizing my mistake and recanting the detailed analysis I’d just given to the group, I found myself on the other end of the spectrum from unshakeable certainty. The funny thing is though, that was a great feeling too. Every tracking experience puts me somewhere along that spectrum and I enjoy the challenge of finding that place, feeling comfortable with wherever that is, and then going from there.

  4. Regina Esposito

    I really enjoy reading your stories about tracking.
    What’s your opinion?
    My children & I have started tracking & I am definitely without a great deal of tracking knowledge. However, I know a few bits & pieces…anyhow, my children & I make up wild stories about the tracks we find. It sometimes leads us to further investigation other times, we just “go with it”.
    After reading this, particular post of yours, I am wondering if you think I could be hindering their animal/tracking education, by allowing them to believe they have figured out the mystery of each scene or set of tracks we find.
    I used to think letting their imagination run free was a great way to approach this with them, but maybe I am leading them right into a trap of them believing the know more then they do & making conclusions from weak evidence.
    How do you suggest I aproach this in the future?

    1. jonahevans

      This is a really good question. I think it’s great to play with kids and find fun ways to get them excited about animal tracks. I might even go along with making up some stores from time to time as long as we all know we are playing and using our imaginations. Kids love this and it’s great fun.

      The point I make here in this article is that we should try not to fool ourselves when our imaginations run wild and that if we are tracking in order to learn about real animals and behaviors, then we should try to ascertain the truth. Determining the truth requires a stricter and more objective approach in order to keep our imaginations under check.

      I say keep it up, but if your kids ever ask you directly, tell them that we are playing and using our imaginations. Perhaps you can then guide them to the field guides and learning the real stuff as they get older.

  5. Martyn

    Great article Jonah.

    I’ve seen a healthy drop in my own confidence, that has actually enabled me to become a little more accurate since I started the tracking evaluations with you.
    I’m looking forward to learning more, and “knowing” less.

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