Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Chelsea Translates Tank Tracks

This post was written and illustrated by Chelsea Forehead, one of our Hubbard Fellows. Chelsea and Mary will be completing their Fellowship later this month and our new Fellows start on February 3. Chelsea is the midst of job searching, so if you are looking for a bright, analytical, creative, bilingual conservation scientist, I know of a good option for you…

One of the more somber symbols of winter on the preserve has been the absence of cows in the parcels around our house. Despite the ghost-town vibes of prairies sans cattle, I was reminded of the ever-present life among the golden dried grass one day last month. Snow was coming and I headed out to the stock tanks to make sure that the wells were turned off and the floats removed. Floats, I learned, are mechanisms that ensure that the water shuts off once the tank is filled to a certain height. With the cows gone, there was no longer a need for the water to be on, nor for the floats to regulate tanks that wouldn’t be refilling.

Muddy ground around a stock tank is a great place to find animal tracks. Photo by Chelsea Forehead.
A mixture of raccoon tracks (center) and coyote tracks (bottom right) around the tank. Photo by Chelsea Forehead.

While I had noted the amount of biomass in the little prairie oases before, seeing castles of bright green algae in the context of cold winter wind was especially striking. The rowing water bugs seemed unbothered by the frigidness of their steel-walled world. Frequent cow traffic around the tank had left the ground around it bare. In the mud I saw what appeared to be fresh tracks of larger fauna. A raccoon and a coyote, it seemed, had passed through the muddy perimeter. Despite there being no certain way to know what had transpired during their respective- or coinciding? -visits, I couldn’t help but wonder what story their prints could be telling. In order to make a more educated guess, or potentially conjure a more exciting narrative, I did a little digging to learn about the native mammals’ biology.

Algae castles in the tank. Photo by Chelsea Forehead.

Coyotes, sometimes called prairie wolves, usually search for food alone or in pairs. The auditory clues to their presence on the preserve are a testament to their more social side. The yips and howls that always make me smile mean that a prairie wolf has found itself separated from the group, or that a reunion between friends is taking place. In warmer months coyotes may even partner with badgers in a cooperative hunting effort. What the badger lacks in speed above ground he provides in burrowing power. Even without the help of badgers, though, the coyote has proven itself surprisingly capable of adapting to human-altered environments. Did this particular coyote capitalize on the water available in this man-made pond? Or was she familiar enough with its presence to know that thirsty prey (a raccoon perhaps?) could be found there?

Close-up of a coyote track. Photo by Chelsea Forehead.

The similar adaptability of the other mammalian passerby is more certain than the story I sought to read in those prints. The word raccoon comes from an Algonquin word that means “one that scratches with his hands.” The handsy creatures have always seemed to me as though they sport oversized sweaters that needed rolling up at the sleeves. It turns out that their rinsing behavior is not for sanitary reasons. The major sensory input for the raccoon is tactile, and their paws have specially adapted pads for literally feeling things out. These pads are softened by water. By rubbing food between wet paws the raccoon can get a better sense of the morsel. Did this particular raccoon climb the spigot of the water tank in order to dunk a bit of food, or perhaps to search for one there?

If the raccoon and coyote had crossed paths at the stock tank, my hunch was that they were at odds with one another. It turns out that raccoons and coyotes have more in common than I had assumed. I’ve always thought of coyotes as predatory and prone to attack. In truth the omnivorous mammals both scavenge for sustenance. While a coyote could kill a raccoon, the masked wash-bears are not usually a part of the prairie wolf’s diet. Both coyotes and raccoons are often cast as tricksters in Native American storytelling. The story of two scavenging mammals at the water tank likely was no more dynamic than it seemed. Knowing that both are out among the senesced flora, however, makes winter on the prairie feel a bit warmer.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

6 thoughts on “Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Chelsea Translates Tank Tracks

  1. Chelsea has an easy-going writing style and an interesting way of interpreting the world. Chelsea regardless of where you end up being employed, I sincerely hope you will continue to share your insights and perspectives in writing with the world. Can’t write to read your first book! In the meantime, tell us where we can read your own blog!

  2. Chelsea, this really was interesting. You have some good photos of the prints, and some good questions. Down here on the Texas coast, I often see coyote and raccoon prints together. In a couple of the refuges, they’re always accompanied by crawfish and crab shells and claws. Despite my assumption that the raccoons were the ones dining on those creatures, this article raises more questions. There’s something new for you to explore!

  3. With the title, I had envisioned large military equipment, so your article was a pleasant surprise, Chelsea. :-)
    Anyway, speaking of jobs, I saw this one advertised recently:
    Employment Opportunity:
    The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation is seeking applicants for our Blufflands Field Assistant position located in NE Iowa (office in Decorah). Application deadline is Friday February 14, 2020. Please pass this onto anyone you think might be interested!
    📷 Contact Jered Bourquin
    Blufflands Associate
    Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation
    1111 S. Paine St., Suite E, Decorah, Iowa 52101
    Office (563) 382-2008/ Cell (815) 821-5003
    Visit our website at

  4. Pingback: Photos of the Week – January 24, 2020 | The Prairie Ecologist


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