Good friend and fellow tracker Paul Rezendes once observed that there are times when a species’ tracks will convince you that you are looking at those of a different animal. So it is with raccoon and otter tracks at the water’s edge. Here are some tips that can help sort things out.
Raccoon (Procyon lotor)
A raccoon’s stance is plantigrade, meaning that it walks on the soles of its feet, as opposed to digitigrade animals like cats and dogs that mostly walk on their toes. The flatfooted placement of a raccoon’s walking track shows as an even downward impression with little emphasis on the toes or the forward edge of the middle pad. The tracks left by the front feet typically look like human hands with long, fingerlike grooves uniting each toe with the palm pad. There is no separate round carpal pad impression, such as we see with a good front foot otter track. A furless raccoon hind foot registers a smooth, bear-like track impression, heel included.
Look for a raccoon’s feces, or even latrine sites, at the base of a den tree or resting place, such as a log or a large tree limb. Raccoons are omnivores, and their scat reveals the plasticity of their diet, including recognizable pieces and colors of all sorts of foods. Their excrement is most often voided as a smooth, even-diameter, tubular, blunt-ended cord. Be careful and practice “safe scat” – do not touch or smell the droppings! A raccoon’s feces may contain thousands of parasite eggs from the round worm Baylisacaris procyonis. If accidentally inhaled or ingested, this parasite can cause serious health problems, even death.
If the tracks are on the hood of your car, they are definitely those of a nosy raccoon. Otters don’t do cars.
River Otter (Lutra Canadensis)
Toe impressions and the leading edge of an otter’s middle pad are different than those of a raccoon because they more deeply register the forward inertia of the otter’s loping gaits. Mesial webbing, the membrane that unites the toe digits, is clearly present in these tracks; raccoons lack this webbing. A feature unique to otter is the elongated thumb-like toe that extends outward from the base of the middle pad. This is present on otter hind feet only. No doubt this toe enhances the strength and spreadable size of the flipper-like hind foot.
In the close-up we see a separate round carpal pad impression, a clue that this track is from an otter’s front foot. The visible grooves that unite the toe digit impressions with the middle pad are not actual finger impressions like we see with raccoon tracks. Instead, they are created by toe phalanges, bones beneath the foot’s skin. The otter’s relatively naked foot surface allows these bone impressions to sometimes be seen in tracks.
An otter’s scat will almost always contain visible evidence of its piscivorous diet, including fish scales and bones, and give off a funky fish-market smell. Pinkish-orange fragments of crayfish are also regularly found in otter feces.
Susan C. Morse is founder and program director of Keeping Track in Huntington, Vermont.