How does one tell the difference between cougar tracks and coyote tracks? Several differences will help determine how to differentiate between tracks of these two animals.
- The general paw morphology of these two animals is similar: they have four front and rear toes. However, the most notable difference is that cougar tracks seldom have claw marks in their tracks, whereas the coyote almost always has claw marks because they cannot retract their claws like cats do.
- The general shape of the tracks of members in the cat (feline) family is round. Whereas, tracks of members of the dog (canine) family are egg-shaped.
- If you look at any track of all animals, there is empty space between the toes and the pad of their paws. That is referred to as ‘negative space.’ Because of the shape of the pads, the negative space of the cats paw is like a ‘C’ laying on its side with the open side down. Many members of the dog family, including the coyote, have a ‘X’ shape negative space because their pads are shaped differently and the toes are also arranged so that the two middle toes are more forward (domestic dogs have a ‘H’ shape negative space).
- Another important clue is how the tracks are arranged together during their gaits. These can vary greatly between species within the dog family; foxes, domestic dogs and coyotes move differently depending on their behavior and, therefore, they can exhibit a variety of gaits. On the other hand, the only major difference between the wild cats is their size and the ground they are on, called the ‘substrate.’
When encountering animal tracks, be sure to look at the trail of tracks rather than just one track. Many components in the environment come together with the animal to tell a story. Their tracks are like words on a page, but all the pages come together to complete the story. Often, one must ‘read’ all the pages in order to answer a question, “Why is this a cougar?” or “Why is this not a coyote?”
One of those pages is the animal’s gait: the way an animal moves. It is not just a description of the trail of tacks, but the way and reason the animal moved to make those tracks. Why is this important? Because it helps you think like the animal. For example, cougars and bobcats walk. They usually move slowly and stealthily. It helps them conserve energy and that is their general behavior.
Coyotes, on the other hand, are usually trotters. They hunt very differently than the big cats and they trot along the land catching scent or sound of small prey, often times flushing them out of cover. They also cover long distances, whereas the big cats do not. However, both cats and coyotes walk and trot, but they spend most of their time moving at one or two gaits which are more energy efficient for them.
Coyote indirect register tracts in soft sandy mud.
Now we are starting to think like a cat and a coyote. All gaits have a rhythm, and most of those are consistent (the notable exception is domestic dog). And the gait is what leaves the trail and pattern of tracks. Walking and trotting are the most natural gaits. And here is where we can also differentiate tracks made from canine and felines.
Both dogs and cats tend to be diagonal walkers; they move opposite limbs together. When a coyote walks, its rear foot tends to fall just behind the front with the rear track sometimes overlapping the front. This is called ‘indirect register’. When they trot, their rear foot falls in the front footprint, called ‘direct register trot’. But one must keep in mind that coyotes have many rhythms, gaits and patterns, which is why they are referred to as ‘the dancers’! Each time any animal shifts from its natural rhythm or speed, there is a reason and the tracker must ask themselves ‘Why?”. That is where interpretation and storytelling comes into play.
The big cat’s natural walk is slow; their gait and rhythm is consistent and slow, claws are retracted, and their tracks are direct register: their back paws fall in their front footprints. Because of their size the greater the stride and distance of their tracks compared to the coyote. When they bound, such as in the act of catching prey, their tracks will cluster and group together more, such as one rear track grouped with both front paw tracks.
The best way to study tracts and animal behavior is to take a small journal notebook with pencil and a small ruler (up to 5-6”). Sketching animal tracks is usually better than taking photographs because the latter is notoriously difficult to capture the depth of field and the subtleties. With a pencil, you can shade in certain features and draw measurements. Get down on your knees or even lay down to peer and study the shapes and textures of the tracks. Also look around the area and include notes about the surroundings, especially the substrate (sand, mud, dust, snow) and the patterns of tracks. For those serious about learning tracking, you can assemble a small kit to take with you that will enable taking plaster casts of tracts. That way you can take impressions of tracks home with you for later study.
Plaster cast of coyote in Rough Run Creek, Study Butte, TX.