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
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
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 4½ 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 1½ 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!