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Tracking Quizzes

Quiz #30 - Answer

The mystery animal is most likely MARTEN.

This is a tough one, as the track quality was difficult in the dry, powdery snow, and marten can be very challenging to differentiate from its cousins; hence why I list this the answer as “most likely”. But here is how you would go about figuring this out.

The trail width of less than 3 inches narrows this down to animals such as weasels and rodents. There are 5 toes seen in the footprint (the front foot), and C-shaped metacarpal pads, which are consistent with weasel family. Another way to look at this is, with leaps like seen here, the animal was going at a pretty good clip, but not a full-out gallop. From this, a rough starting approximation of the length of the animal (not including a tail) would be somewhere in between the “group length” and the “stride” (i.e. in between 12 and 17 inches). If you think of animals that are of this length and only 3 inches wide, it narrows it down to the weasel family – with the primary candidates being long-tailed weasel, mink and marten.

Distinguishing between these three animals can be difficult, and these tracks were no exception. The dimensions of the front foot are in the range for a large mink or a small marten, and larger than the largest large long-tailed weasel. But the toes are robust and forward-pointing, more typical of marten than the delicate, splayed-out appearance typical of weasel or mink. Additionally, the metacarpal pads, which can be seen on both the front & hind feet, have a robust appearance that is more typical of marten than weasel or mink. So that pretty much narrows it down to a small marten - probably a female.

The location was key in this quiz – it was not necessarily just a “plug” for the Craftsbury Outdoor Center. If you had the curiosity to look it up in a field guide, you may have gleaned enough bonus points to help in making the correct guess, as northern Vermont is just within the marten’s southernmost range.

The location of the open expanse of the frozen lake was an additional challenge to this quiz. Martens are not known for traveling across open expanses like this; they usually stick to thick timber. This marten appeared to be going from one area of thick timber to another and not wanting to travel lackadaisically while in the open.

The gait seen here is known as a 3x4 lope, a gait that members of the weasel family find to be comfortable & efficient as long as the snow is not too deep.

A lot of respondents to this quiz said they thought it was a skunk. Let me address that here.
Have you ever seen skunk tracks at -15C temperature? (I've never seen skunk tracks below freezing; let alone -15.)
I double-checked my field guides; some didn't say anything, but the ones that had comments said skunks are generally not active below freezing, consistent with what I've seen.
I was just at a wildlife park, where they have large, natural enclosures with local wildlife. Martens were loping, loping, loping all day long. (So were the fishers & wolverines.) Skunks were sleeping. A worker said the skunks are rarely seen active if it is colder than about +5C. (In WA, it is always damp, so that translates to about freezing in most other locations.) I asked her how active the skunks would likely be if the temp got down to -15C. She laughed.
But I didn't get to see the animal in Vermont, so who knows? :^)

These tracks, along with the fresh powder, made for a great skiing trip. The ski conditions were good, but by having some background in tracking, I got much more out of it than a ski trip. I was amazed by the marten’s efficiency in its travel – an unvarying stride with almost mechanical precision. Tracking allowed me a unique glimpse into the life of this secretive animal.


Quiz #30 - Question      ...on to Quiz #31

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