Monday, November 5, 2012

The Basic Gaits of Your Basic Coyote

Coyote tracks in snow (c) John Ashley
Tracks left on a frozen pond reveal the "side trot" gait of a coyote moving at medium speed
A few gifted people can look at coyote tracks left in snow and translate them into full-length stories. I'm not one of those people. As a teenager I read Tom Brown Jr's "Tracker" books, and I even spent two adult days training with our local tracking guru, Jim Halfpenny. Still, when I contemplate tracks in snow I mostly see a bunch of words scattered hither and yon, sometimes a short sentence or two, but precious few stories.

Translating animal tracks correctly is an art form, but the basic concepts are a little easier to read - especially if you live with a dog.

Coyotes and other four-legged animals leave a set of tracks when moving across snow (sand, mud, etc.). The pattern of tracks, called "gait," will look different depending on the animal's speed, whether they were walking, trotting or running. Of course, these three gaits can be broken down much further (e.g. direct/overstep/straddle/side trot/extended trot), but let's not go there.

A walking gait is a single beat. A walking coyote will normally have three feet on the ground and one foot raised. The feet are moved singly in sequence (left rear, left front, right rear, right front), and the hind feet usually land in the prints left by the front feet.

A trotting gait works in two beats. Instead of four individual movements, the four feet move as two diagonal sets of two feet. In other words, one pair consists of right rear and left front feet, and the other pair consists of left rear and right front feet. Each pair moves in unison.

A running gait is either a three beat or four beat movement, depending on whether the coyote is loping or galloping. A loping coyote pushes off its right rear leg while the other feet move forward in the air. Next, the animal lands with its left rear and right front legs while its right rear foot is still  touching the ground. Then the animal catches itself on the left front leg while the right rear moves forward and the other diagonal pair are still on the ground.

A running gallop gait is quite different. Both front feet are on the ground as the rear feet move forward on either side. When the rear feet reach the ground well ahead of the front feet, the coyote's body is arched. Strong back muscles spring the animal forward again, and the front feet pass to the inside of the rear legs. After a long leap with all four feet off the ground, the coyote's front feet reach the ground and support its weight as the rear legs swing past once again. The two front feet and two rear feet don't touch the ground at exactly the same time, so what looks like a two-beat gait is actually done in four beats.

Trust me, I had to do some re-reading just to spell out these basic gaits. But I remember working with a fellow who thought he was a real artist when reading tracks in the snow. Most of his stories ended up filed in the "Fiction" section. They reminded me of when, as a volunteer teacher's aide in an elementary school, my main duty was listening to oral book reports from second graders. Some of those kids used the story as just a starting point, telling me about all kinds of fascinating things that were most definitely not in the book they just read. But they seemed to relish telling spontaneous stories, and I always enjoyed their creativity more than the books anyway.