Spoor for Thought

As I’ve mentioned before, I used to be a tracker. I was trained to locate, identify, and follow animals based on “spoor”–footprints, droppings, food scraps, and other clues they left behind.

This was while I was living in Central California, a place with little wind or rain, slow-growing plants, distinct seasons, and soft substrate. Footprints could last for weeks, and scat would stay intact for months sometimes. Even scents and sounds persisted or carried well through still, dry air. The flora and fauna were plentiful but limited enough that after a year or so I was able to narrow down a few signs to species with some confidence. It was perfect tracking conditions, the complete opposite of the rainforest.

Here in the dry forest, it’s a little familiar. A little. This dry spell we’re enjoying has hard-baked the clay-like substrate, preserving good tracks before they get washed away. Soft sand, too, leaves good imprints and dropped fruit dries out enough for me to recognize bite marks.

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Mango. Dropped by monkey. How do I know? Because they take two bites and waste the rest, little bastards.

I know this doesn’t sound very interesting to most people, but for me, knowing that an animal has been right here is a close second to actually seeing it. Especially for rare wildlife. It’s like being inside its head and knowing its secrets. The sense of literally walking in its footsteps is a kind of rush, besides the fact that its another way of gathering ecological and phenological data.

So while all our bumbling and crashing around may be scaring off the more illusive wildlife, I’ve been able to get a fairly good sense of just who’s hiding in these woods. Coatis, for instance. We’ve seen a few–mainly lone males–but their footprints are commonly seen in large groups, easily identified by the raccoon-like short forepaw and long hindpaw, along with the waddling gait.

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I hear they prefer the term “sashaying.”

Besides footprints, I’ve been noticing a lot of scars on trees, either from carnivores sharpening claws or other large mammals attempting to climb. I’m hoping for cats–maybe ocelot or jaguarundi–and I’ve noticed suspiciously feline scents around some spots.

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If you’ve ever owned a cat, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

One really encouraging sign was this distinct footprint I found a week ago: tapir. Definitely. There is no other animal on earth with a foot like that–three lobed toes and a little extra digit on the back foot. Truly bizarre. I had been told that they’d been hunted to extinction in this area, but a few conversations with the local staff suggests that one or two may have returned to this area.

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When I found the first one, my boss doubted me and said it was a cow print. Behold, everyone, the Costa Rican three-toed cow.

Other spoor–eggshells, indicating a nest that has just hatched or just been raided and eaten. Papery fragments in mud by the rivers suggest caimans or turtles. Mud wallows and a diabolical smell? Peccaries. Thin trails through the brush? Deer. White-tails, just like back home.

Some things really are familiar.

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