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
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 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).
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
This "persistence hunting"—which may have been widespread among early human foragers—requires subtle detective work.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 resources
For tips on getting
very young children interested in animal tracking, check out these preschool and kindergarten activities.
Books Big Tracks, Little Tracks: Following Animal Prints (Let's-Read-and-Find-Out Science, Stage 1)
is a well-illustrated and concept-oriented book about animal tracks. It's aimed at children under the age of 6.
Tracks, Scats and Signs (Take Along Guides) is aimed at a somewhat older audience, is presented as a guide to the behavior and signs of specific animal species. Both books are exclusively focused on wild animals of North America.
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
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 real tracks—you can buy Nature Series: Science on a Tracking Expedition, also made by the Young Scientists Club.
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).
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
RS, Hill K, Kaplan H and MacMillan G. 2002. Age-dependency in hunting
ability among the Ache of eastern Paraguay. Journal of Human Evolution
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