Master animal trackers throughout history have claimed the ability to identify individual cats, from placid domestic tabbies to fearsome Bengal tigers, from their paw prints. Is this actually possible, or is it hyperbole? According to an enterprising 2008 California State Science Fair project, cats do have unique prints. If that’s not enough to convince you, the World Wildlife Fund agrees.
The only definitive scientific research available regarding the unique nature of cat paw prints was conducted in 2008 by a young man named Ryan Street, who used forensic fingerprinting techniques to lift the paw prints of a kitty who crossed a pane of glass for a tasty salmon snack. He compared the prints to those of 6 feline suspects, claiming he found a perfect match in a shady character known as Suspect Cat-A. Mr. Street’s research findings were entered into the California State Science Fair, a competition for young people in grades 6 through 12.
While to date it’s the only published experimental evidence, Mr. Street’s science project isn’t the only supporting evidence for unique cat paw prints. Consider the case of pugmarks. Pugmarks are animal paw prints, but don’t let this simple definition fool you. The world of animal tracking can be a fiercely competitive place. Apparently any old tracker can follow tracks, but it takes special talent to deduce an animal’s location and identity from pugmarks. What’s the difference? Good question… the answer is in the eye of the tracker. By dictionary definition, pugmarks are simply footprints left by an animal, but those who read them say they are oh so much more.
While some of us might gain a great sense of accomplishment from successfully differentiating a raccoon track from the neighbor’s dog’s, professional-level trackers sleuth out far more about individual identity. According to the World Wildlife Fund’s manual for reading tiger pugmarks, trackers can determine not only species, but front, hind, left and right limbs; can tell male from female animals; and can even identify specific individuals according to their pugmarks. Pugmark reading has been used for decades to track the movements of individual members of endangered species, and it stands to reason that their smaller cousins are just as uniquely endowed and identifiable. However, since track reading is strongly dependent on the skills of the individual tracker, it’s currently falling into disuse as an art, in favor of more scientific methods of “fingerprinting.”
The same countries that once relied heavily on pugmarks, such as Nepal, are switching to DNA “fingerprinting” to keep track of their few remaining big cats, and there are other methods for printing their diminutive relatives as well. Some cat fanciers claim kitty nose prints are as unique as human fingerprints, and many point to the tails of bobtail domestic cat breeds: each of these kitties has a unique tail structure and number of tail bones. Overall, however, as far as kittyprinting science goes, further research is in order before we can known whodunnit beyond a reasonable doubt. Until then, no unsupervised salmon is safe.