One of the things I remember my father saying the most when I was a child was – “There’s always evidence!” This was typically said because I would wonder how he knew that I didn’t do a certain chore, but it definitely applies in the ecology world too.
Mammals are among some of my favorite animals (followed closely by sharks and octopuses!), so naturally, I tend to look for them wherever I go. If you, like me, want to track down some common, local mammals, here are some tips!
Look for the animal itself. If you can’t find it, look for evidence like tracks, scat/droppings (poop, so don’t touch with bare hands!), bones (especially skulls), or behavioral signs (like buck rub or digging). These things can not only let you know what mammal was around, but even what it was doing and when! Here are some key features of PA’s more common mammals.
Raccoon (Procyon lotor) – These masked mammal’s tracks look like little hand prints that can be often seen near water as they like to hunt for aquatic animals like, crayfish, and wash their food. If you ever come across a skull (as I have!) you can identify that they are omnivores, having large canines, cutting teeth, and grinding molars. They love berries, so if you find their scat, it’ll be yellowish-red and full of seeds!
Eastern Cottontail Rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus)– This isn’t your pet. This wild rabbit is a rusty brownish-grey color with white undersides (their cotton ball looking tail is where they get their name from!). Search for browse (twigs low to the ground that have been chomped to a stub) or droppings similar to a deer’s, but more spread out. They are a common prey animal, so finding rabbit bones in the woods is more likely. Their skull is easily identifiable as they are lacey in front of the eye sockets. They also have pronounced front teeth (incisors).
White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginanus) – They are almost the only cloven hoofed mammal in PA and come into so many people’s yards that they are well known. They are a greyish-brown color and have white around their eyes and nose and on the underside of their chest and tail. Their tail is a flag signal for other deer when they feel threatened. Evidence of them being nearby can be droppings (round pellets clumped in large piles), browse, or buck rub (when males rub bark from trees using their antlers to get rid of the velvety covering). Their skull is identifiable as they may still have antlers attached. The nose part (rostrum) is prolonged and they have several incisors in the front with grinding molars in the back of their jaw. Looking at how worn these back teeth are can help you to identify how old the deer was.
Eastern Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) – These dusty greyish-brown mammals are easily identifiable with their bushy tails and tiny paws! Their tracks look similar to the raccoon (having tiny hand prints), but are much smaller and are in a hopping formation more than a walking one. Search the tree tops for bushy, leafy, squirrel nests (called dreys) or chewed through acorns. Their skulls are smaller, rounder, and have a more blunt rostrum with large incisors and blunt molars.
Skunk (Mephitis mephitis) – With their black body and long white stripe running from their nose to their tail, these animals are easily identifiable! Search the woods for large dig marks, crushed egg shells near nests, and scat made of insect parts and seeds. Don’t confuse this skull with the raccoon! This skull is wider and has a slightly more blunt rostrum.
Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) – Don’t think a “Red” fox needs to be red! There are various color morphs (black, silver, blonde and red), but will always have white on the tip of their tail. They have dog-like tracks, but with a longer stride. Search for dens in the woods with food scraps or dirt piled up outside the entrance. Their scat looks similar to a dog’s, but with twisted ends. In the winter, it’ll be full of hair, but in the growing season, the hair is mixed with berries. The skull is easily identifiable as a canine skull as there will be large “bubbles” on either side of the opening for the brain stem. These are called auditory bullae and are pronounced in dogs. They also have large and sharp canines and teeth called carnassial pairs that are built for cutting meat.
Next time you take a nature walk, look for animals! If you don’t see any just know – there is always evidence!
Ecologists and naturalists love the quote “Take only photos, leave only footprints.” While we may want to pick up skulls, bones, and other animal artifacts, it’s best to leave them where they are. If you’re interested in bringing one of these adorable mammals to your home though, do so with a photo!