Tracks in the sand north of Mono LakeFebruary 16th, 2018 by Nora, Lead Naturalist Guide
Learning about the creatures that share our environment clearly enhances our experiences in the outdoors. It helps us notice more interactions as we explore and often paints a picture of what goes on when we are absent, exhibiting the mystery of life away from human eyes. I recently ventured out into the dunes on the north shore of Mono Lake to brush up on my knowledge of mammal tracks and immerse myself in the world of rabbits, kangaroo rats, and coyotes.
A common Mono Basin track is that of the Black-tailed Jackrabbit. These hares inhabit the sagebrush and dunes of the high desert, though they are widespread and found in many other habitats in North America as well. Often you don’t notice them until they shoot out from the next bush over, scaring the daylights out of you, and you just get to see their dark tail disappearing into the maze of brush in an instant. Their tracks are relatively easy to identify, with a triangular pattern of their four feet as they hop (see above). When they hop, their hind prints register in front of their fore prints because their staggered front feet come down and their back feet touch down beyond where their front feet first landed, almost like a gallop. Their hind prints often look smaller than you’d expect when they are hopping because they put their weight into their toe tips rather than put the long hind foot all the way down, but when they stop and stand tall, their hind prints look more like what you would imagine a jackrabbit footprint to look like (see below).
What a fun mystery! Why did this rabbit stop right then? Even more mysterious, where did it go next? The prints seemed like they stopped, but I realized that they resumed heading in the opposite directions about four feet from where the last print was on the other side of a bush. What a jump!
It is challenging to find crisp prints in soft sand (fresh snow, firm mud, and damp sand are the best for holding tracks), so sometimes you have to leave print unidentified or go on your best guess. There are many tracks out there that just look like tiny dots!
Do you want to learn more about the mammals that traverse the dunes in the Mono Basin? Mammal expert John Harris leads a field seminar called Mono Basin Mammals taking place July 27—29 and you actually get to see the critters that make these tracks up close! You can also set up a custom guided trip with me to explore what’s out there and follow the paths of our local wildlife.