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Tracks in the Snow in the Classroom

Tracks in the Snow . . . in the Class Room?

By Doug Collicutt
(Click links for more images.)
Tracks in snowSnow lets you know
what's happened.

Tracks in the snow offer a record of the activity of animals, and people, during winter. They afford a unique opportunity to investigate and understand how some critter has moved and behaved in a short span of time. In many cases tracks offer evidence of otherwise unseen creatures and can inspire appreciation for these animals and the trials they face, enduring our fierce Manitoba winters.

There are lots of things you can do with kids that are "track-related", but this is definitely a case where things aren't going to happen "In the Class Room". (Or could they? I'm thinking finger paints and imagination here.) But they could take place "In the School Yard". Here's a few suggestions for some activities to get kids thinking about tracks, snow, and how critters and people move. For more background on animal tracks in snow, check out our "Makin' Tracks" article in this issue.


Field Trip to a Natural Area

Most schools are close to some sort of natural area, somewhere that isn't paved and has a few trees or tall grass. In cities you can look for tracks in urban parks, and even vacant lots or ditches can harbour surprising amounts of wildlife. And winter is often the best time to reveal the presence of many critters by the tracks they leave in the snow. Visit such an area for a winter field trip and try to find the tracks of animals. Use the "Guide to Animal Tracks" featured in our "Makin' Tracks" article in this issue to help you identify the kinds of animals (wild or domestic) that make the tracks you find. Collect data about tracks that you find and compare and discuss your observations back in the class room. Here's some things to keep in mind.

A) How many different animals can you identify from their tracks? (Maybe even, how many different people?) Compare how each of them moves, by the way the tracks are arranged. Can you find examples of where an animal was moving fast or slow?

A "mish-mosh" of animal tracks.

B) What parts of the natural area have the most tracks? In a large natural area compare the kinds of tracks you find in forested areas versus open grasslands or marshes. You can tell what kind of habitat some animals use by where you do and don't find their tracks. A simple way to collect quantified data on tracks is to have students walk through an area in a straight line, with their arms stretched out sideways, and count all the tracks that they can see below the span of their arms. If you measure or estimate the distance walked and the span of the arms you can estimate the density of animal tracks (#'s / square metre). Compare these densities within different parts or habitat types within the natural area.

C) Look for other signs left by animals along with their tracks. Can you find a spot where an animal may have been eating and left behind some remains of its food? Is there a hole or scrape made by an animal along its trail, indicating that it might have been searching for something?

Other signs in the snow.

D) Follow some trails and try to figure out what the animal was doing. See how far you can follow a particular set of tracks. Record what you think the animal was doing every few metres. Compare and discuss results among groups that followed different trails.

E) Measure and record the size and pattern of the tracks left by animals. Compare the measurements to see if you can tell if there was more than one animal of the same species around. Distinctly different track sizes would suggest more than one individual.

Tracks of chickadees and a deer mouse.
Look for tiny tracks like these.

F) Select a site and keep a record of the tracks you find there all winter long. Keep track of the tracks you find in a particular natural area all winter long, or in your school yard or your neighbourhood. Return to the site regularly and brush away any old tracks each time you're done examining them, so you'll know next time which are the newest tracks.

In the School Yard

Take advantage of snow's ability to record what happens and use this to study the manner and pattern of foot prints left behind by people and other animals. We take walking and running for granted. Take the time to study our manner of motion by using the imprints left in snow. One of the first things that's apparent when there is snow on the ground is that you can find people by following their tracks. Hide and seek after a fresh snow fall isn't much of a game! Think of some of the implications this has for wild animals, both predators and prey animals. Here's a couple of activities to try:

A) After a new snow fall. Have one or more students go out of sight of the whole class and have them "leave a trail" by traveling in any manner possible (walking, hopping, running, rolling, sliding, etc.). Then have the remainder of the class analyze the trail to see if they can tell how the tracks were made. Take turns trying to "stump" the class.

Can you tell how these tracks were made?

B) Cordon off a section of the school yard to see what kind of animals might be using the school yard, also to demonstrate the effect of lots of people tramping around on the ground outside the exclosure. (Many small mammals and other animals depend on thick snow cover to provide them with insulation. Compacted snow can make an area uninhabitable for them in the winter.) Record the tracks you find over the course of winter.


Demonstrating and Analyzing Gaits

You can gain insight into how animals move by trying to mimic their gaits and analyzing the tracks left from various gaits and speeds. Try these:

A) Can you hop like a rabbit and leave the same kind of trail? How about like a squirrel? Try hopping slowly, then quickly. How do the trails differ? Rabbits and squirrels both travel by hopping, but their tracks are quite distinct. Rabbits place their front paws in line with the direction they are traveling, and their larger hind paws are placed side-by-side. The hind paws actually appear to be "ahead" of the front paws because the animal pulls itself forward as the front paws land, so the hind paws contact the ground further along than the front paws. Squirrel tracks are much the same, except that a squirrel places it's front paws side-by-side.

B) Can one person walk on-all-fours like a wolf? When a wolf walks it places its hind paw directly into the impression made by the respective front paw (left hind paw into left front paw mark, etc.). See if two people can do this. Have one person hold onto the coat of another and walk behind them. Can the second person keep stepping into the front person's prints? We humans are used to walking with only two legs. It takes a little more coordination to use four legs.

C) Have several students walk normally through a patch of snow. Measure the size of their foot prints and the stride between tracks. Is there a relationship between the tracks each person leaves and their size (height)? Do tall people have longer strides and bigger feet? Try it again using a running gait or even hopping? Do the relationships of people's size to stride size stay the same?

Some human tracks.

Final Words

When the winter blah's set in, drag the class out somewhere for a day's trackin'! You can have fun and learn lots about Manitoba's critters, and people, too, by looking for their tracks in the snow.

Thanks for learning about Tracks in the Snow! Bye for now!

Here's some other winter articles you might enjoy:

Makin' Tracks! | Winterkill! | Ruffed Grouse

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