by Carl Strang
In an earlier set of posts (find under Methods category in sidebar to left) I introduced the alphabet of tracking, i.e., identification of the kind of animal that made the track. Today I want to take the next step toward reading the stories that footprints have to tell us. That is, to look at the basic gaits. A gait is a pattern of footprint placement, the building block from which an animal’s trail is built, and it also is the order in which the feet step as the animal moves. You will find the same gaits given different names in different references. I follow the terminology of my teachers at the Tom Brown school (link in left margin of the frame).
The pace gait is the usual traveling gait of certain animals, such as raccoons and bears, whose wide-bodied proportions favor swinging their weight from side to side, stepping with both left feet at once, then both right feet. If you try this, in a comfortable rather than lunging effort, you will find that your feet produce side by side pairs of footprints, left front foot beside right hind foot, right front foot beside left hind foot. Here is the pattern in a set of raccoon tracks.
The opposite of a wide body is a long skinny body, which we find in weasels. If your body is, to exaggerate, something like a rope with two little feet at each end, the easiest way for you to proceed will be to move both your front feet together, then both your hind feet, with the hind feet landing behind the front feet. This gait is called the bound. Often the feet are somewhat offset, an indication that the animal oriented its body axis at an angle rather than in line with its direction of travel.
Another gait in which the front feet move together and the hind feet move together is the gallop. This is common in rodents and rabbits, animals whose hind legs are more powerful than the front, so that the hind feet land in front of the front feet. Cottontails typically place one front foot in front of the other, while rodents such as mice and squirrels, as well as masked shrews, place their front feet side by side (in the photo the shrew is moving left to right).
There is one circumstance in which cottontails place their front feet side by side, however. I will leave this one for you to puzzle over. Look for examples this winter, see if you can figure it out. Here’s a photo so you know what to look for.
The final common walking gait is typical of hoofed animals (white-tailed deer in NE Illinois), the dog family and the cat family, as well as us (when do we walk on all fours?). This one is called the diagonal walk, and unlike the others the feet move separately in a sequence: left front, right hind, right front, left hind. In this case the left feet come down in close to the same place, and so do the right feet. The overall impression is a zigzag between right foot pairs and left foot pairs, hence the name for this gait.
There are other gaits, but they are less common or are special cases and will be reserved for later. Also, the connections I have made between animals and gaits are limited to routine travel. When circumstances require, animals shift out of their normal walking gait. For instance, a raccoon in an extreme hurry does not, cartoon like, do a real fast pace gait. Instead, it shifts into a gallop. Tracks outside the normal pattern are a clue that something unusual, therefore interesting, was happening.