What are Gait Studies? Gait refers to the movement pattern the animal is using and the corresponding gait pattern is left for trackers to interpret. In human terms, walk, jog, run, sprint, sit, stand, kneel, etc, etc. Think of an action an animal can take and where its feet need to go, in what order, in order to do that movement. The pattern of tracks left behind is what we read to determine what the animal was doing.
Gait studies often intimidate our students into glazed eyes and forlorn stares reminiscent of my 10th grade math classes… We start throwing out weird tracker jargon and it starts to feel very conceptual and foreign. So I want to focus on a couple things, what can you learn to interpret if you put the time in to understanding gaits and some ways of going about learning them in the first place. The winter is an obvious time for this because we get to see strings and sets of tracks all over the place we never get to witness in the summer!
Why Study Gaits…
Tracking shares much with learning to read. I see the individual track parts as letters, put the letters together and you get a word.Four toes, m shaped heel pad, no claws= CAT. Put the words together and you get a sentence, and the same with tracking. Cat walking, cat sitting. You see a track, and you can id the animal and get your noun, dog, cat, deer, weasel… you see a gait pattern, and you get your verb, running, walking, sitting…. Then you add the context, and the nuance of the tracks and the gait, and you can end up with, female coyote, in estrus, running around wildly marking everything in sight. Or, snowshoe hare cautiously feeding through and open edge area on raspberry cane started into a full out run for its life by a cruising gray fox…
Gait allows you to interpret the scene… the ‘what happened here?’ questions. One of the easiest things to determine is speed. I like to think of speed as the amount of time a subject spent at that location… Sitting is a slow speed, because you are at that location in space for a long time, whereas a sprinter only occupies that space for a moment. This is helpful when you start to gauge “dwell time” or how long something stays in one place, and one of the key indicators is how many tracks are in one location for position shifting during a longer stay in one place. Basically, (there are exceptions to every “rule” of tracking), the more tracks per linear inch or cm, the slower, the less tracks per linear inch or cm the faster it was going.
Think about a slow walk, versus a power walk, versus a run… With each speed increase the distance per step increases. The only time I see this is not true is with a sprint, where the feet are trying to get back to the ground as fast as they can to push off again. I have a 65” running stride and a 56” sprint. This still holds true in gallops, bounds, and lopes, where you have four track clustered together and then a space that indicated the big jump that took place between each set of tracks. The closer the groups of tracks are to each other, the slower.
The basic gaits I use are straight out of Elbroch’s book, as they are the clearest and most definitive to me. You want to be able to identify a walk, trot, lope, gallop, bound, and hop, and then you want to be able to identify the variations of them. This is where your eyes will glaze over. You are being asked to do pattern math, you are being asked to learn to read. To have visual symbols in a certain order bestow meaning into your mind in some weird magic of observation, knowledge, past experience, and deductive reasoning. It is what makes tracking fun once you start to get the hang of it.
Like reading, you have to put your time into ABC’s, which is clear print ID, and then you have to start to learn the grammar, how to conjugate and how to piece together sentences into meaning. Reading was kinda sucky and hard until you could get to the fun part, understanding the story! If you want to learn this from us in persno check out our class: Winter Tracking
How to Study Gait
Start with Elbroch, Mark Elbroch’s Mammal Tracks & Sign: A Guide to North American Species you won’t regret it.The most straightforward scientifically accurate, and real world applicable accounting of gaits I have found in writing! (I have no affiliation with anyone related to the book, it’s just good, and it did not exist when I started, it took 6 books to get close,so I am a big fan.)
Don’t pass up sets of tracks without looking to interpret the gait.
Figuring out lefts and rights and fronts and rears- Animals almost never walk backwards, so usually tracks left on top of other tracks are the rear feet coming in on top of the fronts. Depending on the animal, the number of toes, shape, size, and other details will change from front to rear, and left to right. For animals that have symmetrical feet that are shaped and sized very similarly from front to back, you are going to want to look at the pattern and think about which foot must have landed first given the direction of travel and the basic pattern being used.
Figure out which pattern is being used- did the animal use a scissor or diagonal gait, where you are dealing with a left, right, left, right, left, pattern, or a loping, bounding, or galloping gait,where you are dealing with sets of four tracks together then a large space then four more tracks then a large space? The diagonal gaits will leave the spine disengaged in the motion, have a consistent sound pattern with no pause, and be generally slower. The lopes, gallops, and bounds will have 4 tracks in a group then a space, heavily rely on the flexation of the spine, and have a sound pattern of four footfalls followed by a space when the animal is fully airborne followed by a quick succession of four footfalls that often just sound like one noise..
Start to determine if you are looking at a baseline gait, the animals normal day to day movement pattern– Deer don’t sprint place to place, so when you see deer tracks in a gallop, you know something scared them enough to motivate the fastest, most dangerous, and least energy efficient mode of movement. Notice which patterns are common, and which are rare for each species, these tend to be very exciting finds!
I have never been great about measurements, but with gait I had to find the discipline, and it helps to carry around a tape measure and make notes of baseline gaits for the things you encounter most. This will help you quickly id fox from coyote, walks from trots, red from gray squirrel, and lots of other mysteries that are quickly solved with some diligent measuring. For gait studies this is particularly true and using measurements will help you to refine your interpretations as you start to pick up on advanced details and smaller increments of change.
Watch how people and animals move. Pay attention to how their feet come down. Where are your dogs feet when they stretch, pee, beg, sneak, run in joy, run in terror….watch everything. Nature documentaries with their extreme slow motion cameras are awesome for this. Anytime you can watch an animal move and then immediately inspect the tracks is a gift. Beaches can be a gold mine of this sort of thing.
Draw out gaits you see, but even more important, once you have a resource to look at, draw the gaits yourself. Make up a story and draw out the feet of a snowshoe hare feeding and bounding through the brush showing where it stopped to feed and then exploding into a full open bound as it is chased by a fox that used a sneaking under step it moved into from a trot when it caught the scent of the hare. As the fox could not longer contain its excitement it burst into a full rotary gallop. Did the fox get the hare? Drawing these puzzles and passing them to another tracker to interpret is a great way for you to learn. Was it confusing to them? Do you understand the gaits well enough to express them through drawing?
Walking or crawling through the gaits patterns is a must. Depending on you level of flexibility and strength, get as animal like as you can. Start with something easy like an under step walk, where you move your front right, then left rear, then front left, then right rear and repeat. Nothing will help you to mentally underand the gait like moving through them in your body. When I am looking at a trail and I am not going to actually crawl it out I will still find myself stepping in place, moving my arms forward in a stepping motion, moving my head like the animal may have, trying to understand with my body how its body interacted with the space.
Lastly- DO NOT GET DISCOURAGED! Gaits are hard at first. There is a payment upfront of head scratching and having to read it again, listen to someone else explain it, watch it happen again, and still get it wrong. It is a must that you except that you are going to be wrong a lot to learn gaits. If you think tracking is as badass as I do, and aspire to learn it, get comfortable with failure and unsolved mysteries.
Okay, this could go on forever! Like I said, check out Mark Elbroch’s Mammal Tracks & Sign: A Guide to North American Species, or come on out and take a tracking class at Roots! We have Winter Tracking Intensive, and in the spring, Tracking and Awareness.
Hope you enjoyed!