Skip to main content

Sunshine and paw prints

By Bob Bowles,
Orillia Packet and Times,
March 20 2017

The sun rose in Orillia on the morning of March 11 at 6:37 p.m. EST and set at 6:18 p.m. EST, giving us 11 hours and 40 minutes of sunshine. However, when I looked out my bedroom window just after 6 a.m., the gathering light was evident.

That night, we set our clocks ahead one hour to daylight saving time. Therefore, when the sun came up March 12 around the same time (actually, a minute earlier), it was already 7:26 a.m. DST and time to get up. The day before, getting up at 7:30 a.m. was not enjoyed by most of us getting ready for our day. Setting the clocks ahead by an hour moved that hour of daylight to the end of the day, so we rose with the sun that day but had an extra hour of sunlight at the end of the day. This is the real reason for daylight saving time, which gives us more light for our working day and cuts back on the amount of electrical energy needed for both the breakfast and dinner periods of our day.

The morning of March 18, the sun was to rise at 7:25 DST and set at 7:26 p.m. DST, giving us 12 hours and one minute of sunlight, making the number of daylight hours greater than the number of darkness hours. The daylight hours will grow longer with each day now and the vernal equinox, which occurs March 20 at 6:29 EDT, will mark the official start of spring, putting the dark days of winter behind us.

To understand the natural world, you need to have a good understanding of the five vertebrate groups that occur in our area. These evolved in the order of fishes (460 million years ago), amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and birds (150 million years ago). Birds have been well studied in our area with the two Ontario Breeding Bird Atlases (1981-85 and 2001-05). Fish studies have been ongoing with teams of fish biologists dedicated to only studying fish and changes in their populations. Amphibians and reptiles, known as herpetofaunal, were studied in the first herpetofaunal summary atlas in 1984 and are now being documented again in the second atlas that started in 2009. The one group that has been overlooked for updates is mammals. The Ontario mammal atlas was published in 1994 by the Federation of Ontario Naturalists, today known as Ontario Nature. Ontario Nature is working on the herpetofaunal atlas with other partners. There have been many changes in mammal ranges and populations in the past 23 years, so it is now time to update the Ontario mammal atlas as well.

I didn’t realize how little information is known by naturalists on Ontario mammals until I set up the Ontario master naturalist program three years ago. I made the mistake in the first year of grouping mammals with birds for one module to cut down on the number of modules, but realized after that first year a dedicated mammal module was needed. There is a lack of knowledge on mammal species, ranges and species at risk in Ontario. I read nature reports with misinformation and false reporting on wolves, coyotes, cougars, marten and fishers in Ontario, just to mention a few species.

Close behind wolves and coyotes, the one species that gets wrongly reported and documented is the cougar or mountain lion. They once occurred in Ontario, but hunting and increased human population has all but wiped them out. They still occur in the west and in northwestern Ontario but are rare in the Greater Toronto Area. However, they are still reported. Most of these are sight reports, but sometimes prints are found or even a large roaming cat from time to time that you traced by DNA analysis to escape captive cats brought in from South America. I am cautious and skeptical of any cougar reports in southern Ontario. Most reports turn out to be fisher or large dogs.

A twist to this was when I was sent a photo of a large mammal print (four inches in size) in soft mud taken near Newmarket in May 2015. It was much too large to be anything other than a large cat (cougar or lynx) or a large dog like a great Dane (too big for an eastern coyote). Some were convinced it was made by a large dog, which made more sense given the location and habitat, but the print had all the features of a cat track. Since it was too far south for a lynx, the only other option was a cougar. I took the time to add symmetry and balance lines to the photo and numbers for the features studied.

1. Dog tracks always show claw marks, but cats usually retract their claws when walking, leaving no claw marks. This deep-set track in soft mud would certainly show prominent claw marks if it were made by a dog.

2. Dog tracks show symmetrical and balanced prints if lines are drawn down and across inner toe and heel pads. Cat prints are asymmetrical and unbalanced which is shown by the lines in this print.

3. The front of the two inner toes of dog tracks are even, while cat tracks have a leading toe. This track shows the left inner toe leading, so a cat track made by a right foot.

4. The overall outside track shape is round in cats but egg-shaped or maple-leaf-shaped in dogs. This track is rounded across the front toes and wide giving an outside rounded shape.

5. Dog toe pads are rounded to teardrop-shaped, with the outer toes being triangular, while cat toe pads are all teardrop-shaped and rounded on the trailing edge.

6. The heel pad of a dog is one-lobed and pointed in front and two-lobed at the rear, while cat heel pads are two-lobed at the front and three-lobed at the rear. This is a little distortion for this cougar print due to a small pebble.

7. The space between the four toe pads and heel pad is called negative space. Negative space in a dog’s print is in the shape of the letters X or H, while negative space in a cat print is in the shape of a C, as in this print.

8. There is a raised area or bump in the centre of the negative space in a dog’s print, but it is flat in a cat’s print. The area is flat in this print.

9. The bottom of a dog’s print slopes forward toward the front toes, while the bottom of a cat’s print is flat. The photo shows a deep imprint of the heel pad in the soft mud and about the same for the toe pads, so no slope toward the front toes but flat as in a cat’s print.

10. A cat’s print is wider and rounder, covering more area with the heel pad twice as large as the toe pads. A dog’s print is more teardrop-shaped, covering less area, and the heel pads are about the same size as the toe pads.

11. The habitat and range for a cougar are remote areas away from people with trees and mountain habitat in the north and west, while a large domestic dog depends on people and is usually found in urban areas, so one would expect a large dog track in the Greater Toronto Area. However, a pet cougar purchased from South America, and escaped, was captured by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry in June 2015, close to this area.

Normally, I would not even consider a cougar in this area and would lean toward a large domestic dog, but the track had all the distinct features of a cougar print as has been covered above. Also, at first glance, the print just appeared too big and round for a large dog.

Bob Bowles is a local naturalist. He can be contacted at rbowles@rogers.com