Bulletin 15 - November 1981: Animal Traces

Animal Traces

by Martin Willmot


The awareness that there were many animal traces around the UAE slowly developed through visits to the desert and eastern mountains. It was finding a host of different animal traces up near the top of a cliff face in Fossil Canyon (see Bulletin 14) that cemented the interest. Within a hundred metre steeply sloping site the following were found one morning:

  • Food pellets
  • Donkey droppings
  • A well used roost
  • Fox droppings and tracks
  • Lizard tracks
  • Empty beetle shell cases inside and outside a crevice
  • Several deserted mammals'/rodents' lairs
  • Many crevices with old and new prints

In developing the recording of traces, the scope is very wide. Initially all data need to be split up to develop it more fully. Currently the scope is as follows:

  • All animal tracks, including insects
  • All droppings
  • Food pellets
  • Skeletons
  • Nests
  • Old feeding heaps
  • Fossils
  • Skins

A major disadvantage is that very often it is not possible to see the creature that left the trace. However, the trace itself is an undeniable proof of the existence of a creature. Identification of the trace means that the relevant recorder can register the presence positively.

Once you begin seeking out traces you notice things you may have overlooked previously. If you look over the barrier on the Corniche you are likely to see rat prints on the sand below. If you look on the beach at The Club you may find clear indications of fox, or dog, rats and beetles. Ants will also be at work creating mounds of sand as they burrow. Walking around the margins of vegetation at the Sewage Farm can reveal a mass of traces including bird and mammal tracks, insect cases, bones and burrows.

Although snakes have rarely been seen in Fossil Canyon and environs, their tracks are common thereby proving their presence.

The different types of traces are often mixed, e.g. tracks, droppings, food remains etc. It is now intended to focus on one aspect of traces.

Animal Tracks

The main groups are:

  • Mammals (including rodents)
  • Insects
  • Birds
  • Reptiles

The tracks of camels, donkeys, sheep and goats abound in the desert.


That rodents possess keen mountaineering abilities has been proved by the presence of droppings in precipitous and elevated locations. The jerboa is one of the more interesting, though rarely seen as it is of nocturnal habit. It often places its front paws so close together that its tracks may suggest only three feet. There are numerous rat tracks around Abu Dhabi and offshore islands.

A major problem of course is the precise identification of tracks. Often the rear feet are superimposed on the tracks of the front feet. One one occasion two of us were misled into believing we had a print with six 'fingers'. Mammals have only five. Often it can be difficult to find a single footprint worthy of a photograph.


These leave numerous tracks. Some traces appear as if somebody had ridden a bicycle across the sand; others as if a miniature tank had passed through in the night. Such tracks are often very regular, e.g. :

An early surprise was that a small beetle can leave tracks which are up to three times the width of its body, giving a false impression of size. Another misleading indication is when a track indicates an animal with a tail mark when in fact it may be an ant dragging a piece of food or other material to its nest. Attempts should be made to trap beetles at night and photograph them making clear tracks on firm dew-laden sand in the morning.

Spiders too leave very definite tracks. The trace below is thought to be of a sulfugid, or camel spider. The track was possibly made when the spider was running fast and holding its front legs in front of it -- hence only three tracks on either side.



Bird tracks are most easily distinguished on muddy or wet sandy margins near water or on soft sand. Some give clear clues, others are impossible to identify without seeing the bird.



There are many, many tracks to be found wherever the surface is soft enough to permit an imprint. These two were recorded this spring:

Lizard tracks are normally easy to recognize due to the configuration of the feet and occasional scrape of tails. Tracks often show the long finger marks.

Tracks as Clues

Tracks often give a clue as to an event that has occurred. Examples include a fox scenting urine on a rock; a bird visiting a plant for food or water; beetle tracks between plants on a misty morning, in search of moisture; a sudden flurry of bird tracks as it takes off, or lands, or even catches some small prey; holes dug in the sand by foxes after prey; the tiny imprints of an insect settling once and then flying off again; bones and pellets in an abandoned nest or cave.


If you wish to join in some of the small camping trips or desert visits in pursuit of animal traces please contact myself or any committee member. On the other hand photos or slides of tracks with a definite identification from your own trips will be most welcome. Please collect any moveable traces you find noting the location, date and time of day so that we can build up a scientific register of where and when they are to be found.


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