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Word of the Week: Gait

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Welcome to Word of the Week! Stay tuned for a new word each Friday to amp up your nature vocabulary!

Gait [GEYT] (noun): a manner of walking, stepping, or running.

If you’re tracking animals by observing their footprints, taking a closer look at the gait, or movement patterns, can give you lots of insight about who and how they’ve been active in your surroundings.The preferred / normal movement patterns of a given animal will tend to fit into one of 4 patterns or gaits:

Waddlers / Pacers (slow moving, wide-bodied animals such as the beaver, muskrat, skunk, porcupine, bear and raccoon)

  • legs on one side move together (right front & right hind, left front & left hind)
  • hind feet will be imprinted just behind front feet
  • hind feet are larger and look similar to human feet, elongated with a distinct heel which is narrower than the rest of the foot

Diagonal walkers / Perfect Steppers (Animals whose bodies are further from the ground: deer, moose, caribou, elk, fox, wolf, coyote, bobcat, mountain lion and dog)

  • hind right foot lands on top of the front right foot, but slightly behind, staggered – the hind foot impression comes after the front foot impression
  • conserve energy by intentionally placing front foot and hind foot in the same spot
  • front feet are larger than the hind feet
  • males: front feet of walkers will land wider than the hind feet
  • females: front feet of walkers will land narrower than the hind feet
  • this rule can be different for immature and old animals tend who often have a wider stance compared to the length of their stride
  • for cats and foxes the hind foot is directly on top of front foot

Bounders (Animals with long slender bodies and short legs: the least weasel, ermine or short-tail weasel, long-tail weasel, fisher, mink and marten

  • look for five toes
  • front feet are smaller than hind feet
  • front two feet land first, the hind two feet that land just behind the front
  • tracks can overlap
  • get to know the unique pattern these animals make
  • will not be diagonal, but if you imagine a centre line, the tracks will rub up right against it
  • weasels and be confused with deer because the imprint of the four feet of a weasel can be the same size as one deer hoof, this can be confusing when the tracks are older
  • distance between tracks are also similar

Gallopers (small animals who move speedily across the land: mice,

voles, and shrews, chipmunks, squirrels, and larger animals like rabbits and hares)

  • imagine a rope between the feet: front feet land first close to the centre of the rope and the hind feet wrap around the outside and land second past where the front feet landed
  • patterns move in a line like bounders
  • if prominent tail drag: likely a mouse
  • mice, voles, and shrews move from hole to hole to stay out of harm and visit food caches
  • 99.9% of the time these animals use this pattern even when moving slow or fast
  • stride measured from rear toes to rear toes. The pattern doesn’t change with speed. The distance between sets of tracks increases (Rabbits Hares Rodents – not Porcupine & Ground Hog)
  • If the front feet hit at a diagonal = ground dwelling animal e.g. shrew or rabbit
  • If the front feet hit side by side = a tree dweller e.g. Squirrel

The winter is an excellent time of year to track animals because you can look for visible footprints in the snow. On your next winter visit to High Park, keep and eye out for animal tracks!

Resources:

Canadian Wildlife Federation

Princeton: Outdoor Action Guide to Animal Tracking

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