The lost art of animal tracking:

What kids can learn from the study of foot prints and other visual clues

© 2009-10 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Animal tracking?

Before the rise of urban life, kids spent a lot of time learning “read” the visual clues left behind by other animals.

Nowadays, many kids never get to learn the art of tracking. But maybe they should. Tracking gets kids outdoors and interested in wildlife. It may also provide kids with opportunities to practice scientific reasoning, spatial skills, and symbolic thought.

Animal tracking in anthropological perspective

If you live in the urban world, you might not do much tracking.

But for some people, tracking animals--and reading the visual clues they leave behind--are a crucial part of daily life.

In the Western Desert of Australia, hunter-gatherer children as young as five years old track lizards and birds (Bird and Bird 2004).

Boys in the Kalahari must learn how to track prey for hours at a time, because large, fleet-footed prey animals usually escape the first attack. Typically, hunters shoot prey with poisoned arrows and then follow the weakened animals until they finally collapse (Liebenberg 2008).

This “persistence hunting”—which may have been widespread among early human foragers—requires subtle detective work.

Wounded prey animals are frequently out of visual range. To avoid losing the trail, hunters must make careful observations of the environment and make inferences about past events.

Such detective work is useful in other contexts besides hunting.

In East Africa, local herdsman know how to recognize (and avoid) the tracks left behind by a python. They also understand the significance of a dead impala draped across the branches of a tree. Leopards stash their kills in trees to prevent them from being stolen by scavengers. So a dead ungulate in the branches means that a leopard is nearby.

Interestingly, the local monkeys fail to show an understanding of such visual signs. In field experiments, primatologists Dorothy Cheney and Richard Seyfarth hung a stuffed gazelle carcass from a tree and then observed how wild vervet monkeys behaved. The monkeys seemed oblivious to this sign of danger. Similarly, the monkeys ignored python tracks (Cheney and Seyfarth 1990).

Time well spent?

For most of human history, children’s daily lives probably resembled those of modern-day hunter-gatherers. Kids spent their days outdoors, paying close attention to the behavior of other animals. They participated in foraging. They learned to hunt small game, steal eggs, and find edible insects. They learned to track.

In fact, archaelogist Steven Mithen has proposed that Upper Paleolithic art functioned, in part, to teach children about tracks, hoof-prints, and other animal signs important for hunting (Mithen 1988). For example, many European cave paintings depict animals with their feet unnaturally twisted, so that the feet are drawn as you would see them in tracks (Guthrie 1984).

So it’s interesting to consider: What have we lost? Urbanized parents often worry that their kids spend too much time playing electronic games or watching television. We worry that our kids have overly short attention spans. We want our kids to go outside, to get more exercise. We want to encourage our kids to be active, to think critically, and discover an enthusiasm for science.

It seems to me that animal tracking addresses all of these concerns. Tracking takes kids outside. It gives them reason to move their bodies and pay close attention to their environment.

And tracking is an intellectual exercise, too.

Maybe that isn’t obvious. After all, dogs are good trackers, and they aren’t as smart as our kids. But dogs rely on chemical clues—like smell—to track. To follow a scent trail, an animal may need little more than the ability to detect differences in the intensity of an odor. The stronger the odor, the closer the target. If the scent trail is broken, the dog may lose chase.

Humans rely on visual clues, and these clues may require complex inferences to decode. Perhaps that’s why the vervet monkeys performed so poorly on the leopard kill test. They didn’t have the right kind of smarts.

Human tracking may depend on scientific, spatial, and symbolic thinking. Here's why:

Scientific thinking. As researchers like Louis Lieberberg and Peter Carruthers have argued, successful trackers must reason like scientists (Liebenberg 1990; Carruthers 2002). Trackers attempt to explain the clues they find. They develop hypotheses about what animals were doing when they left these clues. They make predictions about what the animals were likely to do next. They debate their ideas with other trackers and put their predictions to the test.

Spatial thinking. When you walk, only some parts of your foot make contact with the ground—the tips of the toes, the ball of the foot, the heel. So a footprint doesn’t look exactly like the foot that makes it. Experimenting with prints and tracks is an opportunity for kids to think about three-dimensional objects: What parts of an animal’s foot will leave a mark on the ground? And how might the properties of the ground’s surface—be it sandy or snowy or muddy—influence the shape of a foot print?

Symbolic thought. Tracking may also involve a form of symbolic thinking. To reason about animal tracks, I have to understand that a sign (squiggly marks in the dust) stands for something entirely different (a living snake). So maybe “reading” tracks is not unlike reading pictograms or hierglyphics. And perhaps teaching preliterate children about animal tracks helps them develop an understanding of symbols, preparing them for other symbol reading activities, like learning the alphabet.

Does this mean that animal tracking will make our kids smarter? Maybe not. But it would be interesting to test the effects of tracking experiences on young children’s analytical, spatial, and symbolic thinking skills. In the future, maybe somebody will run the experiment.

Meanwhile, it seems a good bet that tracking is about intellectual, rather than physical, prowess. A study of the Ache, hunter-gatherers in Eastern Paraguay, found that men don’t reach their prime hunting years until their late 30s--long after they’ve achieved their peak body strength.

The study’s authors conclude that hunting success depends on “stealth and know how” rather than sheer strength (Walker et al 2002).

Animal tracking for kids: Recommended articles and books

For tips on getting very young children interested in animal tracking, check out these preschool and kindergarten activities.

Big Tracks, Little Tracks: Following animal prints is my favorite animal tracking book for kids under the age of 6.

For older kids, try the National Geographic guide, Animal Tracks and Signs: Track Over 400 Animals From Big Cats to Backyard Birds.

Animal tracking for kids: Product reviews

Card games

If you are looking for games or activities about animal tracking, check out Animal Tracks by Young Scientist's Club. This is really just a set of illustrated cards printed on heavy cardboard stock. But the cards are colorful, durable, and can be used to play several games, including concentration, bingo, and matching. Instructions are provided.

There are 80 cards total (40 representing animals, and 40 representing tracks). Most species come from North America, the exceptions including an African lion, a giraffe, and a camel. Though it's possible to create your own cards, it would take a lot of time and effort to match the quality of this set.

A science kit for making your own animal track casts

If you want to have fun making plastic casts of animal tracks—and can’t find any tracks!—you can buy Nature Series: Science on a Tracking Expedition, also made by the Young Scientists Club.

The star attraction of this science kit is the set of 8 animal foot print molds (black bear, great blue heron, gray wolf, raccoon, opossum, wild turkey, whitetailed deer, and striped skunk).

You can use these as stamps (covering the surfaces with paint and pressing the molds onto paper).

You can also stamp the molds into wet sand (making a track) and then fill the impressions with plaster. The kit includes a bowl of sand and some plaster for making casts.

These molds aren’t super-realistic. The black bear and heron footprints are vastly scaled down, and the surface of each track is completely flat. The edges, too, seem a bit stylized---more likely cookie cutter shapes than naturalistic feet.

But that’s a picky complaint, since the footprint outlines presented by these molds are no less realistic than the illustrations you get in a standard field guide. And at $32 this kit is much cheaper than a "grown up" set of highly naturalistic molds (which would set you back about 100 bucks).

Also included in the kit is

• an eight-page activity guide

• an unfinished poster (which kids complete by affixing stickers and stamping footprints in the correct spaces).

• a set of 80 animal track cards, identical to the ones sold separately as part of the Animal Tracks! Game, but for the fact that they are printed on low-quality playing-card stock, not heavy cardboard stock.

Overall, this seems a good buy if you are looking for a science kit in the $30-40 price range. It's pretty easy to get at least 10 hours of entertainment out of the kit. And kids can use the molds again and again to make plaster casts as gifts (and to print their own, unusual gift-wrap paper).



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References: The anthropology of animal tracking

Bird DW and Bird RB. 2005. Martu children’s hunting strategies in the Western Desert, Australia. In BS Hewlett and ME Lamb (eds.), Hunter-gatherer childhoods: Evolutionary, developmental and cultural perpectives. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

Carruthers P. 2002. The roots of scientific reasoning: infancy, modularity, and the art of tracking. In P. Carruthers, S. Stich and M.Siegal (eds.), The Cognitive Basis of Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cheney D and Seyfarth R. 1990. How monkeys see the world: Inside the mind of another species. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Guthrie D. 1984. Ethological observations from Paleolithic art. In HG Bandi, H Huber, MR Sauter and B Sitter (eds): La contribution de la zoologie et de l’ethnologie a l’interpretation de l’art des peoples chasseaurs prehistoriques. Fribourg, Suiss: Editions Universitaires Fribourg.

Leibenberg L. 2008. The relevance of persistence hunting to human evolution. Journal of Human Evolution 55: 1156-1159.

Leibenberg L. 1990. The art of tracking: The origin of science. Cape Town: David Philip publishers.

Mithen S. 1988. Looking and learning: Upper Paleolithic art and information gathering. World Archaeology 19(3): 296-327.

Walker RS, Hill K, Kaplan H and MacMillan G. 2002. Age-dependency in hunting ability among the Ache of eastern Paraguay. Journal of Human Evolution 42:639-657.

Content last modified 8/10