Marking Behavior

Janet Pesaturo is a writer, educator, and CyberTracker certified wildlife tracker. Check out her winter tracking programs and camera trapping blog here.

Some of the most interesting animal behaviors involve social communications. Even the most solitary species need to communicate, whether they’re staking claim, communicating social standing, or advertising sexual status. We can read about the behavior and find the evidence, but there’s nothing like observing it with a trail camera. This video contains examples of scent marking by several different species.

Bobcats and Canada lynx are largely solitary animals, but they do communicate year-round with conspecifics. Scent is the preferred medium: both species spray urine on scrapes, stumps, snags, and the vertical faces of boulders, and often mark the same sites repeatedly. Once you discover a travel corridor, you can pinpoint good camera targets with your nose. In the first clip, a bobcat sprays the end of a log. Then a lynx climbs a beaver lodge and spritzes the end of a prominent stick. Watch carefully and you can actually see each cat’s spray.

Beaver lodges are appealing spots for canid marking, as well. Coyotes and foxes mark with scat and urine, often on raised surfaces. The next two video clips feature a coyote pair, and later a red fox, anointing the same lodge.

Otters sometimes mark atop beaver lodges, but more often in latrines near the dam, where they roll, groom, and scrape up mounds of debris. They leave scat, urine, and anal gland secretions on the mounds and on the ground. Latrine action is often a social event, where revelers roll, groom, and communicate with grunty chatter and chirps. If you turn the volume up, you may catch some of these sounds in my clip.

The beaver is another assiduous scent marker. It creates a mound at the water’s edge, composed of material dredged up from the pond. In spring, resident beavers mark frequently to stake claim and avoid conflict. The male, especially, will visit repeatedly to “freshen” the scent. The color video footage here shows rare daytime activity, for beavers most often tend to their mounds at night.

The beaver’s terrestrial cousins have other marking strategies. The woodchuck chews saplings near its den, where it also rubs its cheeks to deposit scent from oral glands. In the video, you can see the throw mound of the den in the background.

Gray squirrels also leave sign of chewing and rubbing, but usually on the trunks and branches of larger trees. They feed on cambium in winter, they “tap” maples in early spring for sap, and they chew and rub with cheek glands at any time of year, but particularly during the breeding season. The activity in the video occurred in the first and second weeks of January in Massachusetts. What is the squirrel doing? Is this feeding or marking? Please share your thoughts in a comment!

  1. Susan Fly
    Dec 22, 2016

    Terrific video collection of a diverse group, Janet. And you managed to capture those fast-moving otters - no easy task. That squirrel ... hmm. I believe he’s gently lapping up sap that’s oozed out as a result of his tapping efforts. January may be a bit early for the sap to really run, but his movements don’t look “chewy” to me.

  2. Diane → in Maine
    Dec 23, 2016

    Really nice footage.

  3. Janet Pesaturo → in Bolton, MA
    Dec 26, 2016

    Susan, I too thought the squirrel was licking sap when I first saw the clip. I’m still not sure, though. I looked at the branch and did find a few bite marks but they didn’t really look like the classic dot-dash pattern you see with tapping. Also, at the very end of the clip, it looks like he might be doing some cheek rubbing. Most people I show it to, lean towards scent marking, probably because of the time of year, but I agree with you that he appears to be mostly licking.

  4. Bob Moore → in Scent Marking
    Dec 28, 2016

    Very well done footage of eastern mammals scent marking. Interesting to see how the less social the animal the less time it takes to do the scent marking behavior. Conversely the more social the animal generally the more time and more detailed the scent marking behavior.

  5. Janet Pesaturo → in Bolton, MA
    Dec 29, 2016

    Bob, that is an interesting observation! I’m not sure why that would be in general, but certainly for otters, the process of scent marking seems to be an important social event, with meaning in the present, not just for communication with animals that happen by in the future.

  6. Sydney Lea → in Newbury VT
    Dec 29, 2016

    Great stuff here. I do have a question. Often my wife and I will come upon a rock in a lake near our Maine camp, where beavers have established FOUR mounds. These appear to correlate just about exactly to the four points of the compass.

  7. Janet Pesaturo → in Bolton, MA
    Dec 31, 2016

    Bob, that’s an interesting observation. It seems true for the otter, for which scent marking sometimes appears to be a major social event. They seem to spend about 15 seconds at the latrine, and scent marking is sometimes associated with mutual grooming. I’m not sure that more social animals spend more time marking or have more complex marking rituals as a general rule, though.

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