Which Foot?

So from the striped skunk post, how do I know which foot is which? That’s a great question and here I’ll try to explain how to figure this out.

The easiest, front from back track. First off, we know that skunks are diggers, from the digs in you front yard to rotten wood pealed back from old decaying trees down in the woods. Animals that dig generally have large front claws, think bears, badgers, etc. These animals generally have large predominate claws on the front feet, and short, smallish, if they even show, back claws. This is also where a good field guide comes in handy. The Mammal Tracks and Sign book(From my top 10 Tracking Books post) would show the typical striped skunk track with its large front claws and small rear claws. So from this picture, figuring out front from back should now be very obvious.

Next, left from right. This will not be as obvious as the front or rear, but with some practice and attention to detail, it will become fairly easy. Mammal morphology follows a few patterns across all species. One head and four legs are good examples of traits all mammals have in common. There are other more general rules that vary, but still hold mostly true, like fingers and toes. One way that helps me figure out left from right is thinking of my own hands, held out in from of me palms out. My thumbs in the middle, pinky fingers to the outside.

Almost all mammals have this same configuration. Some mammals, like this skunk, show five fingers. Just like us, the thumbs are the lowest digit on the track. Now look back at the photo and see the front right track. Notice the thumb is to the left of the track. What about a bobcat or coyote? They show four toes on each foot. Look back at your own hand again, this time fold your thumb under where only four fingers show. Now the lowest digit is the pinky finger, and the lowest track that shows is now the outside of the track. In these mammals the thumb has moved up to form the dew claw or is missing altogether. A lack of need for this toe has caused it to be removed by evolution. In deer, toes 3 and 4 are the main two toes that reliably register in the track, toes 2 and 5 are moved up and make up the dew claws, and toe 5 is gone to time.

I’d like to take a moment right now to clarify the numbering of toes. In the tracking world, toes are numbered from the inside to the outside starting with the innermost toe as toe 1, and as in this skunk the last toe as toe 5. See photo below.

There’s more to this topic, but right now I just want you to be thinking about which foot you’re looking at the next time you see a nice track. Remember to think about your hands.

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