IS A SPOOR?
email message was short - "You may add Lontra canadensis
to your mammal list!" - but I was delighted. Lontra canadensis
is the scientific name of the river otter, and the message meant we
had increased the number of confirmed terrestrial mammals on our land
to 17. Learning to read spoor can make an ordinary trip through the
woods, along a road or beside a wetland more interesting year-round.
on spoor to document the presence of otters at the land. "Spoor"
is a quirky word that in the broadest sense means an environmental clue
to the past that has been left by an animal. Parallel, finger-length
footprints in the snow let you know for sure that a rabbit was there.
wildlife tracker would even be able to say how long ago. An overpowering,
pungent smell along a highway reveals that you have crossed paths with
a skunk, which probably met its demise as roadkill. Scat (animal droppings)
can provide especially valuable environmental clues about unseen wildlife
in an area.
like making lists of one sort or another. As an ecologist, I particularly
enjoy knowing what plants and animals are around me when I'm outdoors.
some land with woods and a stream where I enjoy conducting biological
inventories for my own edification, not as part of a scientific study.
the list of wildlife species we encounter is a gratifying exercise.
Knowing we have 18 kinds of amphibians, 28 types of reptiles and 38
kinds of trees gives me a feeling of accomplishment and makes me eager
to find the next one in each category. I liked adding a cool creature
like a river otter to our mammal list.
way to know that otters are around without actually seeing one is to
find one of their latrines, which they return to on a regular basis.
Otter latrines are not yucky nor do they smell bad. They consist mostly
of a pile of crushed mollusk shells and fish scales and maybe a few
grandson and I found such a pile on a ridge along our stream, he immediately
said "otter." I concurred but wanted confirmation from an
expert. I contacted Leslie Ruyle, who has conducted extensive otter
who had been a University of Georgia graduate student and is now on
the faculty at Texas A&M, took one look at the photo and validated
instrumentation of all sorts is now available for ecological studies.
Radiotelemetry can tell us where animals go. Radiography and sonography
may be used to determine how many eggs an animal has.
student studying reptiles in a lake recently showed me video of swimming
and basking turtles that had been taken from a drone he was operating.
can unquestionably be a valuable tool for studying nature. But learning
to recognize basic environmental clues allows anyone to enjoy nature.
Gadgetry should not replace observation.
even the simplest environmental clues can tell us something about wildlife
in the world around us. Finding the mud tower surrounding a crawfish
hole, seeing a tree that has been girdled by a beaver, identifying the
readily recognizable footprint of a raccoon on a muddy creek bank all
offer gratifying wildlife experiences that let us know we have company.
We do not need to see, hear or smell the animal itself to discover we
are not alone.
and I will continue enjoying nature in the old-school way by looking
for spoor in the form of tracks and other signs. But we hope to get
further documentation of river otters along our stream using a more
set up a wildlife camera along the ridge where we think they visit on
a regular basis. Sometimes you need to combine the old and the new to
get the full picture of nature.
you have an environmental question or comment, email