Here’s a winter natural history mystery, found about five feet from a tree in the woods. What do you think the story is? Below are some more clues:
In deeper snow, a set of two tracks (slightly offset from one another) were followed by more sets of paired tracks. Each set of tracks represent four prints, as the hind feet directly register on the tracks left by the front feet. This gait is called a 2×2 lope – a slinky-like pattern common for the weasel family. (See 7:19 in this video for this 2×2 lope gait acted out)
The tracks ended at a tree (entering from the bottom right, another animal left tracks across the middle of the photo). The tracks picked up again after the mystery depression in the snow. It seemed that this animal had jumped from the tree into the snow and left a body print with a long tail mark! Who could that be?
The fisher! Also known as fishercat, pekane (Abenaki), pekan (French), otchock (Cree), otshilik (Ojibwan), wejack (early European settlers), and furred snake, they are the second-largest member of the weasel family found in Vermont, after the North American River Otter. Fisher are agile climbers and can turn their hind feet up to 180 degrees, allowing them to move head first down trunks (when they don’t jump down!). Their climbing ability also makes them adept porcupine hunters, able to force porcupines to fall from tree branches where they can then attack their unquilled faces. In Vermont, fisher are the only predators who deliberately target porcupines as prey.
Habitat loss and unregulated trapping led fisher to practical extinction in Vermont by the turn of the 20th century. Consequently, the porcupine population proliferated and seriously damaged Vermont’s second-growth maturing forests. The fifty cent bounty for two porcupine ears during the first half of the 20th century was not effective population control, and so the fisher was reintroduced as a natural check on porcupine numbers. Between 1959 and 1967, 124 fisher were brought from Maine and released into 37 Vermont towns. Today, the porcupine/fisher equilibrium has been restored and fisher are common in the state, even in urban areas (check out where they’ve been seen in Burlington and South Burlington through the Burlington Mammal Tracking Project).