25 July 2021
When four of us walked the Muddy Creek Trail at Moraine State Park last week we found something we hadn’t expected. In the mud at our feet was a very large footprint. A bear was there.
None of us knew much about animal tracks but the footprint was unmistakably a large black bear (Ursus americanus), easy to identify because it’s the only bear species in Pennsylvania. Debbie hovered her hand nearby for scale.
Why is this bear track so narrow front-to-back? Black bears don’t roll their feet heel-to-toe like we do so their heels don’t always register. This illustration from the National Park Service shows front and hind tracks. I have shaded the heels that leave shallow or no prints. Bears step forward on their tiptoes. (*)
Immediately we wondered how recently the bear had been there. Was it hiding in a nearby thicket? The track tells a story, some of which I am too uninformed to decipher.
At first glance the bear print seems to show just palm pad, toes and claws, but a smaller print came later, superimposed on the bear’s shallow-registered heel. The smaller mammal walked by after the bear was gone, perhaps long gone.
Who was that smaller mammal? People walk their dogs on this trail. Was it a dog print? PROBABLY NOT! Expert tracker David Rohm says that pawprint looks good for bobcat.
The print is round and doesn’t show any claws (canines usually show claws). The fourth toe is lower than the others, the second toe is highest. My guess, before David Rohm told me the answer a feline too large for a house cat.
I did take more bear track photos. Here’s a hind foot. Notice the pointy heel.
And perhaps a front foot.
In any case, both animals were gone before we arrived. Pennsylvania black bears avoid people unless habituated to our feed or garbage.
Why was the bear there? Bears use our trails and roads for the same reason we do. It’s easier than wading through the underbrush.
(*) Did you know that cats and dogs always walk on their tiptoes? A subject for another day.
(photos by Kate St. John)