by Filip Tkaczyk
Mark Elbroch's Mammal Tracks & Sign: A Guide to North American Species is an encyclopedic volume that should be part of every naturalist's bookshelf. It is the most thorough and comprehensive book to tracking mammals available today. It is organized in a way that is both user-friendly and accessible whether you are an experienced tracker or are completely new to tracking.
The first few chapters within Mammal Tracks & Sign introduce the fundamentals of tracking. Mark Elbroch puts it very well when he says,
"Tracking provides such amazing opportunities to learn and interact with our homes, our environments, and our neighbors the wild creatures. Tracks and signs bring the woodlands, deserts, and suburbs to life, revealing the presence of the dynamic lives that perpetually surround us. Tracking also leads to self-knowledge, because you cannot increase your awareness of the world around you without becoming more aware of your role in it."
Through the use of three perspectives, Elbroch encourages the observer to look more closely and interact intimately with the natural mystery present on the landscape. This method can be especially helpful to aid in journaling and recording tracking observations.
Elbroch has the observer look while lying directly next to the track or sign, from a standing position and using the imagination from a flying position of a bird passing over the landscape. He also discusses track plates, plaster casting and track photography. All of these are methods that allow an observer to bring the tracks back home with them.
Then, he talks about foot morphology and its usefulness in identifying mammal tracks and sign. Followed by a detailed explanation of mammal gaits and how they vary according to speed and physiology of the animal. These are vital keys in understanding how to interpret and identify mammal tracks.
Mammal Tracks & Sign includes two main quick reference sections in the book, which have colored margins. The first section contains life-sized sketches of the tracks of a wide variety of mammal species found throughout North America. This is an incredibly useful tool that allows the observer to quickly compare found tracks in the field with the sketches. These are often times superior to comparing them to photos because photographs are often cluttered, not to scale or show imperfect tracks. Hand drawings allow the author to draw attention to the key morphological features of the animal's tracks more easily.
The second section with colored margins is full of photos of the scats of many different mammals, along with a range of measurements of the length and width of scat for each. These provide a good quick reference to scats an observer my find in the field.
The largest single section in the Mammal Tracks & Sign is the tracks and trails species accounts. This area includes information on a given specie's foot morphology, track measurements, trail measurements, typical gaits, range map and also additional notes on habits. This is an incredibly insightful part of the book, and includes the tracks of nearly 100 species of mammals. Information in this section is especially useful in helping distinguish similar species in the field using their tracks.
The next chapter of the book covers runs, ridges, tunnels and eskers. These are more large scale types of sign that can be seen in a landscape even when clear tracks are not present. Runs are defined as an accumulation of foot prints over time. Ridges are areas of debris or soil lifted by activity, most often of moles, shrews or sometimes voles. Eskers are created mostly by gophers (to a lesser extent by voles) as they dig under the snow, and backfill their tunnels with the soil they have moved. Eskers may also include nests and latrines.
The book continues by talking about beds, lays, wallows, baths, nests, burrows, dens and cavities. This section includes extensive information on a variety of depressions and holes created and used by mammals. Many of these can be identified down to the species according to their size, shape, depth and location in the landscape.
The next part in Mammal Tracks & Sign is a large chapter on scat, urine and other mammalian secretions. It precedes the quick reference photograph section for scats. Its text discusses the details of how different groups and species of mammals place and utilized the bodily excretions and can be used fairly precisely to identify an animal by its deposits. This chapter also gives some information on why mammals scent mark.
This is followed by a chapter on the sign left by mammals on vegetation and fungi. This kind of sign includes marks left by feeding, climbing, scent marking, nest building, and food caches.
Afterwards is a very large chapter on other signs of feeding such as digging, predation insects, birds, fish and other mammals. Included here is an excellent list of data on measurements between the upper and lower canine teeth of some of the major mammalian predators. This is useful information, as raided eggs or kill sites may show the distinct holes left by the predator's canine teeth.
The next chapter is about mammal remains, which includes information on hair, cast antlers and dead mammals themselves. This last chapter can draw a person to look more closely at some of the less pleasant sights left by mammals, such as roadkills and kill sites. These can often be great teaching tools and tell an intimate part of an animal's natural history.
In the closing chapter Mark Elbroch shares some of his more intimate tracking experiences and encourages the reader to study one animal in depth if they wish to keenly hone their tracking skills.
Throughout the book, there are short vignettes that introduce each chapter and help breath life into the tracking subject matter covered in that chapter. It is a pleasing counterpoint to the scientific material that makes up the bulk of this volume.
Interested in field-based, experiential training in wildlife tracking skills? Check out Alderleaf's Wildlife Tracking Apprenticeship.
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