The mystery animal is most likely MARTEN.
This is a tough one, as the track quality was difficult in the dry,
powdery snow, and marten can be very challenging to differentiate from
its cousins; hence why I list this the answer as “most likely”. But here
is how you would go about figuring this out.
The trail width of less than 3 inches narrows this down to animals
such as weasels and rodents. There are 5 toes seen in the footprint (the
front foot), and C-shaped metacarpal pads, which are consistent with
weasel family. Another way to look at this is, with leaps like seen
here, the animal was going at a pretty good clip, but not a full-out
gallop. From this, a rough starting approximation of the length of the
animal (not including a tail) would be somewhere in between the “group
length” and the “stride” (i.e. in between 12 and 17 inches). If you
think of animals that are of this length and only 3 inches wide, it
narrows it down to the weasel family – with the primary candidates being
long-tailed weasel, mink and marten.
Distinguishing between these three animals can be difficult, and
these tracks were no exception. The dimensions of the front foot are in
the range for a large mink or a small marten, and larger than the
largest large long-tailed weasel. But the toes are robust and
forward-pointing, more typical of marten than the delicate, splayed-out
appearance typical of weasel or mink. Additionally, the metacarpal pads,
which can be seen on both the front & hind feet, have a robust
appearance that is more typical of marten than weasel or mink. So that
pretty much narrows it down to a small marten - probably a female.
The location was key in this quiz – it was not necessarily just a
“plug” for the Craftsbury Outdoor Center. If you had the curiosity to
look it up in a field guide, you may have gleaned enough bonus points to
help in making the correct guess, as northern Vermont is just within the
marten’s southernmost range.
The location of the open expanse of the frozen lake was an additional
challenge to this quiz. Martens are not known for traveling across open
expanses like this; they usually stick to thick timber. This marten
appeared to be going from one area of thick timber to another and not
wanting to travel lackadaisically while in the open.
The gait seen here is known as a 3x4 lope, a gait that members of the
weasel family find to be comfortable & efficient as long as the snow is
not too deep.
A lot of respondents to this quiz said they thought it was a skunk.
Let me address that here.
Have you ever seen skunk tracks at -15C temperature? (I've never seen
skunk tracks below freezing; let alone -15.)
I double-checked my field guides; some didn't say anything, but the ones
that had comments said skunks are generally not active below freezing,
consistent with what I've seen.
I was just at a wildlife park, where they have large, natural enclosures
with local wildlife. Martens were loping, loping, loping all day long.
(So were the fishers & wolverines.) Skunks were sleeping. A worker said
the skunks are rarely seen active if it is colder than about +5C. (In
WA, it is always damp, so that translates to about freezing in most
other locations.) I asked her how active the skunks would likely be if
the temp got down to -15C. She laughed.
But I didn't get to see the animal in Vermont, so who knows? :^)
These tracks, along with the fresh powder, made for a great skiing
trip. The ski conditions were good, but by having some background in
tracking, I got much more out of it than a ski trip. I was amazed by the
marten’s efficiency in its travel – an unvarying stride with almost
mechanical precision. Tracking allowed me a unique glimpse into the life
of this secretive animal.