When spending time in cougar country, keep an eye out for the following indications that a lion may have, at one time or another, been in the area. If scat or a deer kill appears fresh, please notify people nearby to stay off the trail, giving the lion time and space to move on.
Upon first investigating a track or tracks, step back and examine the "style" of the track sequences. By process of elimination, the tracker can usually begin to discern what the tracks probably are by identifying specific features which are either diagnostic of wild cats or domestic or wild canids (dogs).Dog tracks usually register (show) the animal's forward moving "style" of locomotion. Coyotes and wolves and even their domestic counterparts usually trot, and often, gallop in order to get around. The result is very diagnostic, for the heel pad will shove up the surface material into a ridqe on the top edge of the heel. Cats usually walk through life; like their domestic cousins, they choose a very easy and deliberate walking pace with the result that their tracks typically appear clean and undisturbed, with the animal's weight showing in an evenly distributed impression.
Don't assume that a track automatically belongs to a dog if it has nail marks showing. Some sheep dogs and hounds have nails which are very worn with the result that they occasionally won't show at all, whereas cougars and bobcats will occasionally use their claws for extra traction while walking upon slippery or disagreeable surfaces. The difference in what we see is significant cat claw marks appear as sharply defined slits in contrast to the blunt impressions of canid nails.
Upon further examination of a track, look for the following features: Cougar tracks feature the typical cat heel imprint, which has two lobes on the top (or leading edge) of the heel and three lobes at the base (or bottom) of the heel. Be aware that some guidebooks do not always show the diagnostic two lobes on the leading edge, while others do. Both are correct for these features may or may not appear, depending on the properties of the surface upon which the lion is walking, and the corresponding depth of his foot impressions. Most often, however, the three lobe pattern at the base of the heel will show.
The toes of a cougar track are asymmetrically arranged and appear as elongated ovals or tear drop shaped impressions. The leading toe corresponds to our middle finger, with the little toe (like our little finger) providing the sure clue as to whether it is a right or left foot we are examining.
Mountain lion track.
Photo courtesy of Ben Blue, California
The cougar's trail will appear as a neat, regular placement of paired or overlapped footprints, in which the left and right hind feet have been placed in or near the corresponding impressions made by the front feet. Note that unless cougars are actually stalking, playing or running away from an enemy, their trails rarely depict variations in gait.
In addition to scat and urination for scent communication, cougars sometimes also leave scratch markings on tree trunks or stumps through a process called claw raking. Similar to a house cat scratching furniture, a cougar will stand on its hind legs and drag its claws down a tree trunk. The scratches will be approximately four to eight feet off the ground, depending on the size of the cat, and run parallel and vertically down the tree a few feet. Although these scrapes may simply be part of the claw-grooming process, many researchers believe it is another way for the cats to announce their presence. Scent from the paws is left behind in the tree bark and cougars have been observed sniffing the scratches made by other cats. Likely, it marks one's territory to deter intruders and serves as a dating bulletin board for those ready to mate.
Seeing scratched bark is not a clear indication of a cougar's presence. Bears also claw rake; their scrapes tend to be larger and remove more bark. Ungulates, like deer, elk and moose, rub their antlers against trees and can leave scratch marks, too. In preparation for rut (mating), it is common for males to scrape their antlers against tree trunks to help remove the velvet. Large mammals can also be seen rubbing their bodies against tree trunks to scratch those hard-to-reach itches.