Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

September 16, 2010

Prairie Wolf Afoot

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:03 pm

I can’t count the number of times I’ve brought up the subject of coyote tracks over the years. As a matter of fact, I just displayed  a coyote track (hind foot impression)  in my last posting didn’t I? I do this because:  a) coyotes are exceedingly common and they frequently leave track evidence and b) Michigan coyotes are exceedingly hard to spot because they are very wary beasts. This means I only see the animal itself once or twice a year and those times are fleeting and/or dimly lit. So, I am compelled to resort to photographing track evidence in order to reveal features of coyote life such as mouse hunting, scent marking, and long nocturnal wanderings.

Tracks are fine, but on a recent trek down old M-12 towards Moscow, I literally came one step closer to the real thing. A freshly dead coyote lay at the side of the road (there are no appropriate road runner jokes to insert here). It had apparently been struck by a car earlier in the morning and was still slightly warm. Unfortunately, even according to my standards, the poor thing was not presentable for photography except for its feet. So, being ever the practical naturalist, I took the opportunity to examine those feet right then and there.

Fortunately, I wasn’t in a rush to get anywhere. Around these parts, road kills tend to get scooped up and processed by the locals. By that I mean, fur-bearers such as foxes, raccoons, and the like are picked up and their skins processed for sale. This is a very good thing, by the way – I mean, what is the value in leaving something to waste. Squirrels and rabbit kill won’t be touched, but all other game is game. At any rate, I felt that I needed to look at the thing right away because it would not be there on my return trip. Wow, can you believe that I actually spent an entire paragraph trying to explain why I stopped to look at a road-kill! Sorry, that won’t happen again.

Now, back to the track-making appendage of the coyote. Noting that there were no Acme Rocket Skates attached to the feet (oops), I set about to document the situation and grabbed hold of the front feet (see below). It is true that in most four footed mammals, the front feet are both larger and differently shaped than the back feet.  In the case of the dog family, this trait is obvious. The front foot is normally about ¼ inch longer than the back.

Take a look at the toe pads of the coyote and you are starring at something very familiar – especially if you are a dog owner. The four main toes are clustered into a quadrafoil arrangement, the fifth toe is located well up on the leg, and there is a central pad (see beginning photo). Overall, the foot is much more elongated than that of a domestic dog and, of course, the toenails are not neatly trimmed. Imagine the clicking noise a coyote would make if it walked across your kitchen floor. For that matter, imagine the noise you would make upon seeing a wild coyote walk across your kitchen floor!  Anyway, the outline of the pads is generally oval.

The back foot (see above) has a very un-doglike look. Although the four toe pads are similar to the front, the central pad is very narrow and three-lobed. This part of the creature looks much more like a fox foot, except on a much larger scale. Given the amount of hair between the toes, and the narrowness of the central pad, this part of the foot often leaves an indistinct impression in the soil.

I suppose there is only so much time one can spend looking at coyote feet, and I also suppose that we have just exceeded that time limit. Remember, however, that the study of wild feet is time well spent. If one measures their time one foot at a time then we are several more feet into a good life. Besides, it’s always fun to look at people stare at you as they fly down the highway. They look at you, then the dead animal in front of you, then they notice the fact that you are touching that dead animal, and then they press on the accelerator and Me-beep! They are off.


  1. Would you believe I actually think of you whenever I see a roadkill? Since reading your roadkill posts I find myself drawn to examine flattened fauna myself.

    Your coyote was very interesting. As a tracker, I really enjoyed the close-up of the feet. Thanks!

    Comment by Ellen — September 17, 2010 @ 9:50 pm

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