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Quiz #23 - Answer

  

If these photos made your hair stand up on the back of your neck, you’re right. The answer is COUGAR (MOUNTAIN LION).

The way to figure this out is as follows. First of all, if you glance at the ruler to get a rough size, you can tell that this is one big friggin’ animal. Some other characteristics to observe are:

  • Four toes
  • No claw marks
  • Overall shape of the print is a circle

All of these characteristics are common to the cat family. (The dog family, for instance, generally shows prominent claw marks, and the overall shape of the track is an oval.) Other characteristics that identify this as a cat are:

  • Toe asymmetry (there is a "lead" toe). (Dog family have symmetrical arrangement of toes.)
  • Plantar pad with 2 lobes at the front and 3 lobes at the back. (See Photos 23E & 23G for examples of this. Dog family looks more like a plain triangle, with no lobes.)

The cat family includes house cat, bobcat, lynx, cougar, ocelot, jaguarundi and jaguar. These tracks are WAY bigger than a house cat, and are also considerably larger than ocelot or jaguarundi. The location of Arizona rules out lynx & jaguarundi. Jaguar, while technically a possibility in this location, is so extremely rare, plus jaguars tend to not show lobes in the plantar pad very distinctly, that you can almost flat out rule it out. So that narrows it down to bobcat or cougar. And here’s where it gets tough, these tracks are right in the overlap between the two.

The stride and trail width are more suggestive of bobcat than cougar. However, the smallest of the footprints are right at the max size for bobcat; the footprints measuring 3 inches are larger than even a world-record bobcat. Plus, bobcats tend to be on the small size in this region, so all of the tracks are likely larger than the champion bobcat of Arizona. So it is cougar – a small adult, or a juvenile though.

The basic footprint is showing the size of the toes & foot pads of the animal; the circular impression around the track shows the size of the whole foot including the fur. In this case, a 4 inch diameter foot is too large for bobcat, so that also says cougar.

Another measurement that experts use to distinguish bobcat from cougar is the width of the plantar pad. In this case the measurement was 1 7/8 inch; the max for a bobcat is about 1 inch, so that’s more evidence for cougar.

This was without comparison the most exciting tracking encounter I have ever experienced. The cougar, one of the world’s most daunting and fearsome beasts, gave me a shot of adrenaline and a big pound from my heart like a drum, the instant I saw the tracks, and I quickly looked around in all directions. The cougar is also one of the world’s most stealthy animals, so finding its tracks is a rare experience. To discover tracks like these in such pristine condition, so crisp, in such perfect snow, was a tracking experience never to be forgotten, and I will always remain thankful for it.

(Actually I was not all that concerned that a cougar was nearby. Within a few seconds I realized that the tracks were 3 days old. The snow had fallen on a Monday, and this location was right at the snow line, so the snow was very wet when it fell. The cougar’s feet burned through the shallow wet snow, all the way to bare ground in some places. Then the weather got colder and the tracks froze solid, all the way till Thursday when I encountered them. Pretty amazing!)

I hope this quiz inspires you to head outdoors and put in some dirt time. Go tracking enough times, and you will find some magic.

Stay tuned for the next quiz!

 

Quiz #23 - Question      ...on to Quiz #24

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