Scat, Tracks, and Dead Things

Oh, what a lovely thought it is to want to actually catch a glimpse of the elusive species that you are studying after trekking many miles in a remote environment! How grand it would be to be able to get a NatGeo worthy photograph to share with the world and frame on your wall! You may see wonderful camera trap images of wildlife from other projects and envision similar shots on your trail cameras, totally ignoring or unaware that there were hundreds of fuzzy blurs or blades of grass swaying in the breeze for every awesome image. While these may be ideal scenarios of gathering data on species populations, more often than not, scientists gather information they desire from less “charismatic” means…

Brown Gold

Downtopoo

Ah, scat. That travel-sized package of almost everything you want to know about an animal’s diet, health, genetics, or even behavior based on where its located.

Bottle up and analyze enough of these puppies, and you can put together a pretty good picture of how many individuals of a species are occupying the same area (Skin cells rub off on the outer layer of scat so DNA can be obtained from that). You can also find out who may be breeding with who based on overlapping territories, and discover how individuals are utilizing their range.

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Snow leopard scat found under a ledge at an elevation of 3500m.

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Marmot toilet found in a small cave at 3200m

By finding scat of other species, you can start to do a biodiversity study in an area with your target species. From the locations of where those are found, you can get an idea of how the different species share the same space and resources. For example, this could especially be useful for anyone interested in studying resource partitioning between different carnivore species.

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I went for a walk at a bog in my hometown and found some fox scat on the boardwalk. Couldn’t resist a good ‘ol scientific poke

Footprints to a Different Life

Although not as information jammed as scat, tracks have their own stories to tell. They’re the remnants of movement patterns that can lead you to a habitat’s most used resources and most travelled “wildlife highways”.

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Wolf tracks on an ATV trail in Ely, Minnesota

Tracks indicate a general existence of a species in an area, even if for all other monitoring methods an animal seems invisible.

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Snow leopard tracks. They aren’t nicknamed “ghosts” for nothing!

Sometimes you can get lucky and find the tracks of different species around each other. Perhaps they simply passed through at different times, or maybe there was a predator-prey interaction that took place there. Then you’ll have your very own “CSI” investigation!

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Ibex track found not far from the snow leopard scat which was depicted earlier


Leftovers and Bits of Things Once Living

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An ex-polecat found on a bridge in Otgontenger SPA

::Sniff:: Smells like science! That distinct aroma of methane, carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, and nitrogen wafting through the air are a clear sign that something dead is nearby. Of course being the naturalist or scientist that you are, your reaction may be to locate the source so you can proceed to poke at it with a stick (see above fox scat image for demonstration), initiating your own inquiry process into its identity.

If you find remains that seem partially eaten, you may be able to estimate what was scavenging off of it, possibly by noting any scat or tracks around it. Carcasses are also great bait to attract various invertebrates in an ecosystem.

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Red deer carcass in Hustai National Park, Mongolia. There were caterpillars all over it.

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Argali horn

Then there’s the miscellaneous antlers, horns, hooves, skulls, and other bones you may find scattered about in a region. In places like Mongolia, where there are millions of free-ranging livestock, the vast majority of remains you’ll find are from domestic animals. These, along with scat and tracks, can be found at the highest ridge-lines, illustrating that no part of the landscape is really safe from encroachment.

It’s Still a Good Day…

So the next time you find yourself out on a hike or in the field for a new research project, and start to feel frustrated from not seeing any wildlife, don’t be discouraged! Signs of them are all around you if you take the time to look. Keep an eye on trails, propped up on rocks, under ledges, and through terrain features like draws or ravines. A day finding nothing but scat, tracks and various other remains still counts as having a productive day in the field!

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