Animals that Undertake Extraordinary Migrations

Animals that migrate incredible distances

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For humans, getting from A to B usually involves hopping in the car or, for very long distances, a train, boat, or plane. But we only do this for convenience; for most humans, we have everything we need right where we live. The same cannot be said for some animals.

That’s where migration comes in. These animals require varying environments for reproduction, food, and survival, so they’ll travel remarkable distances to access them.

Why Do Animals Migrate?

Why do animals migrate?
Many European Birds will Migrate to Africa During the Winter Months as Food Becomes Scarcer

Migration is a behavior seen in many kinds of animals, from fish to birds and even mammals. It’s where these creatures will move from one location to another for a variety of reasons that are key to their survival. However, it’s important to remember that migration has to be annual or seasonal for it to be classed as true migration.

Some animals will randomly move from place to place within the local area, but this is not in the same category. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the reasons animals might travel these incredible distances.

In Search of Food

Finding food is one of the most common and important reasons for animals to migrate, and this usually happens in winter. In some northern climates, food becomes much scarcer during the winter, so animals will move further south where provisions are more plentiful. For example, a lot of European birds will head down to Africa over the winter. In North America, northern species may migrate to Central or South America.

Avoid Seasonal Conditions

Imagine having to put up with extreme conditions when there was an option to simply move away from them. That’s one of the reasons that some animals migrate.

For example, some animals like whales and the Arctic tern want to stay away from warm weather, so they’ll migrate in summer. The Arctic tern heads from the North Pole, where it’s around 32°F (0°C) in summer, to the South Pole, where temperatures can be as much as -18°F (-28°C)!

Of course, there are also animals that will move to warmer climates when the mercury starts to dip and this is common in many of the bird species that fly south for the winter.

There are also instances of forced migration where local natural conditions have become too extreme for animals to stay in place. This could include things like droughts, floods, wildfires, and hurricanes, to name a few. When this happens, it’s not unusual to see animals well outside of their range, but this migration is only temporary, and they normally return home within 12 – 24 months.

Escape Predators

Most animals are predated by others, unless they’re right at the top of the food chain. But when it comes to things like breeding, these predators become an even bigger threat, so many animals will move to safer ground to raise their young.

To Reproduce

Reproduction is another of the most common reasons for animals to migrate. Take the salmon, for example, it’s born in a body of freshwater and then makes the long journey to the ocean, where it’ll stay for three to four years. When the time comes for it to breed, it’ll migrate back to its birthplace to do this. Although, once it has mated, it’s certain death for these animals after their long journey.

Lots of crustaceans, such as the spider crab, will migrate to deeper waters during the breeding season, where they’ll also take the opportunity to shed their shells.

Some animals, like the humpback whale, will migrate to warmer waters along the coast of Mexico in order to breed. They’ll travel in large pods and will also head to these warmer areas for food.

Displacement by Human Activity

Humans are taking over the planet at an alarming rate, forcing animals out of their natural habitat to make way for things like housing and agriculture. Deforestation is also a huge issue, with portions of forests being cut down and ridding the earth of safe habitats for animals.

Types of Animal Migration

Types of animal migration
Monarch Butterflies Migrate from Canada and the United States to Mexico Annually

Migration can be defined as a controlled and intentional annual or seasonal movement, but there are different types.

Before we get into these types, it’s important to keep in mind that migration can either be obligate or facultative. Obligate migration is where a species must migrate to survive, and it does so on a consistent annual or seasonal basis.

On the other hand, facultative migration is optional, and animals may decide whether to migrate based on whether they currently have access to enough resources. But these two types of migration can be further broken down.

Complete Migration

Complete migration is where all animals within a species migrate, and they do this on an annual basis. There are several examples of this, including the Arctic Tern, which has one of the longest migrations on the planet.

Partial Migration

Partial migration is where only some individuals within a species will complete the annual migration. These migrations happen where the range of the animal is rather large and so those in cooler parts of the range need to migrate. This is a behavior seen in the barn owl.

Differential Migration

Where migration within a particular species occurs, not all individuals will follow the same pattern. This is called differential migration. While all members of the species will migrate, some may move shorter distances than others, for example.

Interruptive Migration

The blue jay is an example of a bird that does interruptive migration. While they may migrate some years, it’s possible for them to remain for other years when resources are not as scarce.

Removal Migration

Removal migration happens when there is a dramatic change in the local area, forcing animals to relocate. The natural habitat of the animal may no longer be suitable because of things like urbanization or deforestation.

Long-Distance Travelers: Amazing Animal Migrations

Nature is truly a spectacle to behold, especially when we look at what some animals are capable of. Every year, millions of creatures start their migration journeys, and some travel mindblowing distances.

1. Cariboo

The Cariboo has the longest migration of any land animal, traveling up to 2000 miles (3218 km).

The Caribou, sometimes called a reindeer, has the longest migration of any land animal, traveling up to 2000 miles (3218 km). These large animals will spend their summers along the Canadian and Alaskan coastlines. However, during winter, they’ll head southwest towards mountainous regions.

They do this in search of food but also to remove themselves, and their young, from predators that share their winter ground. Amazingly, it’s been shown that caribou are genetically inclined to migrate, and mutations have been discovered around their brain activity, hormones, and metabolism, all of which impact their migration.

Large herds of Caribou, such as the west Alaskan herd, made up of around 259,000 individuals, will always migrate. But it’s been noted that not all small herds will display this migratory behavior. Before leaving, caribou will fill up on food in order to have extra energy reserves. However, as grazers, they will stop along the migration route to feed.

2. Monarch Butterfly

Monarch butterflies can travel up to 2,800 miles (4,506 km) every year in their annual migration.

Monarch butterflies can travel up to 2,800 miles (4,506 km) every year in their annual migration. This is something of a spectacle where as many as half a million butterflies can be seen moving from Canada and North America down to Mexico.

The forest in which they stay during the winter is ideal for breeding as the temperature is cool enough without being too cold and things are quiet and peaceful here. However, fewer butterflies have been spotted over the years due to things like pesticide use and deforestation. In fact, where there were 45 acres covered by migratory monarchs in 1995, only 27.5 acres were inhabited in 2003.

3. Arctic Tern

The Arctic tern has the longest migration of all birds.

The Arctic tern has the longest migration of all birds and pretty much any animal on the planet. It takes an annual migration from the North to the South Pole in search of summer sun. It’s thought that these animals see more daylight than any other, and they’ll go where there is more daylight as the sun makes it easier for them to see when hunting fish.

These birds can live as long as 30 years and will travel up to 43,495 miles (70,000 km) each year. But they don’t just go directly from pole to pole. The journey takes several months, and while they will almost double their body weight for it, Arctic terns will stop off on almost every continent where they can find food. They’ve even been spotted in Australia.

Their bodies are streamlined and lightweight, so are perfect for long flights. Plus, these birds glide on the wind and can even eat and sleep whilst doing so! But they’ll never get lost thanks to a compound in the brain called biomagnetite which allows them to tune into the magnetic pull of the earth for navigation.

4. Ruby-Throated Hummingbird

Ruby-throated hummingbirds can travel up to 900 miles (1,448 km) nonstop during their migrations.

The ruby-throated hummingbird is one of the smallest avian species in the world but that doesn’t stop it making an impressive migratory flight. These birds travel from Canada and North America down to Central America, the Caribbean, and parts of northern South America via the Gulf of Mexico.

There’s often a need for them to fly continually over this region, and some can travel up to 900 miles (1,448 km) nonstop. That said, it is not unusual for them to stop and feed even though they’ll gorge on nectar before leaving, often doubling their body weight.

It’s normally the males that will migrate first, and they know it’s time to go because a change in sunlight stimulates hormone production that gives them a sense of wanderlust. They’re also able to instinctively navigate their route so they never get lost.

5. Desert Locust

When desert locusts start following prevailing winds and migrating, as many as 150 million locusts may be present in an acre (square meter)!

The migration of the desert locust is perhaps one of the most alarming, at least for humans. For the locusts, however, it’s simply a matter of redistributing as, during some years, populations can grow to alarming rates and there is a need to spread out.

These locusts are prominent in parts of North and East Africa, Southwest Asia, and Arabia. But when they start following prevailing winds and migrating, as many as 150 million locusts may be present in an acre (4,047 square metres)!

This spells disaster for local agriculture, and a group of this size can feast on crops eating the equivalent of what 35,000 humans would consume. This has caused devastation for farmers in these areas.

6. Gray Whale

Gray whales make epic journey of up to 7000 miles (11,265 km) during their migrations.

Gray whales make a spring migration between January and June and a fall migration between October and February. They make this epic journey of up to 7000 miles (11,265 km) along the east coast of the Americas, starting as far north as Alaska and moving down to Baja, CA.

There used to be a population of gray whales in the North Atlantic, but they have been extinct here, save for rare random sightings, since the 18th century. At the time of writing, there are currently two known populations in the North Pacific, with one group numbering around 27,000.

These huge animals can live for up to 70 years and may weigh up to 90,000 lbs (45 tons). Females tend to breed biennially, and one of the main reasons for migration is so that they can give birth in warmer waters. However, in summer, they’ll head back north to their feeding grounds. That said, it’s not uncommon for these whales to become opportunistic feeders on their long journeys.

7. Blue Wildebeest

The blue wildebeest has the largest land migration on the planet, with up to 2 million individuals moving at any one time.

The blue wildebeest, also known as the gnu, has the largest land migration on the planet, with up to 2 million individuals moving at any one time. Alongside this migration, there are zebras and gazelles which form a massive herd of animals that is famous around the world.

The wildebeest may travel up to 1,800 miles (2,896 km) every year in search of new grass on which to graze. They follow the rains and will often move from the southern Serengeti ready to arrive in the Masai Mara National Park in August, just in time for the rainy season.

8. Blackpoll Warbler

When winter approaches, the blackpoll warbler will take flight and head toward South America.

The blackpoll warbler spends the summer in Canada and Alaska, with significant populations in the Denali National Park. When winter approaches, these birds will take flight and head toward South America. They’re known for their epic journey, which would reach up to 12,400 miles (19,955 km) as a round trip.

These birds are also famed because they hold the record for the longest migration of any New World warbler as well as the longest over-water flight of a songbird. They’ll travel up to 1,800 miles (2,896 km) nonstop over the Atlantic Ocean. In order to make the journey, they need to fill up on food to increase their body fat. Sadly, smaller blackpoll warblers are unlikely to make their destination.

What’s truly fascinating is that these birds will spend time exploring during their migration to familiarize themselves with the surroundings. Not only does this help to guide them, but it’s also thought that they’re seeking out territory for when they next return.

9. Salmon

Salmon migration is called the salmon run and every year, millions of fish take part.

There are two species of salmon; the Atlantic and the Pacific salmon. But they both have one thing in common and that’s that they return to their place of birth to breed in a mammoth migration.

This migration is known as a salmon run and every year, millions of fish take part. Salmon spend up to five years out in the ocean, maturing and reaching adulthood. When they’re ready, they wait for fall when the water levels start to rise and head back inland to the river where they were born.

It’s an arduous journey swimming against the current, and these fish have to travel up to 900 miles (1,448 km) and ascend more than 7000 feet (2,133 meters). Once the fish have reached their destination, it’s time to mate; no rest for the wicked!

However, after breeding is complete, all species of Pacific salmon die. While some Atlantic salmon don’t make it back to the ocean, some do and will return the following year for another round of breeding.

10. Humpback Whale

Humpback whales haves the longest migration of any mammal.

The humpback whale is one of the most observed species of whales on the planet, and they also have a pretty astonishing migration. There are populations in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres, and each will spend time closer to the poles in summer, where they’ll feed to build up blubber.

During winter, the southern population moves to the northern tropics while the northern humpbacks will move from places like Alaska to Hawaii. They do this because the water in these areas is much warmer and therefore more conducive to birthing their young. However, there is an endangered population in the Arabian Sea that is not known to migrate.

Traveling more than 5,000 miles (8,046 km) to reach their winter grounds, these whales can lay claim to having the longest migration of any mammal. It’s amazing that they can find their way, but thanks to magnetic material in their brain, they can sense the magnetic pull of the earth to navigate.

11. Bar-Tailed Godwit

During winter, bar-tailed godwits will head off in search of the best feeding grounds and travel to Australia and New Zealand.

The bar-tailed godwit has one of the most impressive migrations in the world. These wading birds are found in Alaska during the summer months where they will breed and feed. However, during winter, they head off in search of the best feeding grounds and travel to Australia and New Zealand.

This mammoth flight across the Pacific Ocean takes up to 9 days, and they’ll do it nonstop. The birds can cover up to 18,019 miles (29,000 km) in a round trip and will gorge on food to get their body fat up to 55% as fuel for the journey.

12. Nathusius’ Pipistrelle Bat

Nathusius’ pipistrelle bats will normally migrate no more than around 621 miles (1000 km).

Nathusius’ pipistrelle bats are medium-sized bats that are common in Western Europe. Usually, these bats won’t migrate more than around 621 miles (1000 km) and that’s at the extreme end of the scale. However, in 2021, one individual was found to have traveled more than 1,253 miles (2,017 km) to a Russian village called Molgino; well outside of its normal range.

Sadly, this bat did not survive and fell prey to a cat after becoming injured. Usually, the Nathusius’ pipistrelle bat would travel along coastlines to access its various habitats. For example, these bats can be found in parts of Western Europe like France, Germany, and Austria during hibernation but they’ll breed further east in countries like Latvia and Russia and as far out as Azerbaijan.

13. Northern Elephant Seal

Northern elephant seals are unique in that the males and females migrate separately.

The northern elephant seal is the largest type of true seal in the Northern Hemisphere. They can weigh over 5000 lbs (2,267 kg) and spend as many as nine months of the year out at sea.

When it comes to migration, the northern elephant seal is unique in that the males and females migrate separately. The males will head north in search of food while the females move west out into the open ocean, where they will dive and remain submerged for up to 2 hours at a time.

While these creatures can be found as far north as Alaska and as far south as Baja, they will migrate up to 13,000 miles (20,921 km) in a round trip to their breeding grounds in Mexico and California.

14. Leatherback Sea Turtle

Leatherback sea turtles will travel up to 3,728 miles (6,000 km) in its annual migration.

The leatherback sea turtle is a very determined creature that is thought to have been around for more than 110 million years. It will travel up to 3,728 miles (6,000 km) in its annual migration. While not a lot is known about the migration habits of these animals, scientists believe that they frequent very specific feeding grounds, and as such, their migration routes are just as specific.

There are populations of these sea turtles in the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic Oceans. However, they typically move south to places like Suriname and French Guiana when it’s time to breed in July. The females will come up onto the beach to lay their eggs.

The leatherback turtle’s migration is also driven by its need to feed on jellyfish blooms. This is when they will head north, but once the food is all gone, they’ll turn around and move south once again.

15. Bar-Headed Geese

The bar-headed goose can travel up to altitudes of 29,527 feet (9000 meters) during their migrations

While some animals can be applauded for their ability to travel long distances, the bar-headed goose is also impressive in its ability to fly high. Migrating from places like Tibet and Mongolia where they breed, to warmer climates in India over winter, the bar-headed goose can travel up to altitudes of 29,527 feet (9000 meters)!

But how do they do this? It’s all in their physiology since these geese have much larger lungs than many other types of birds. What’s more, scientists have discovered that the bar-headed goose can increase its metabolism and heart rate to the max when flying higher.

During their annual winter migration, bar-headed geese can travel up to 5,000 miles (8,046 km). They are able to fly for up to 621 miles (1000 km) nonstop and the entire migration can take up to two months. However, that’s largely because they mainly fly at night when the air is denser with oxygen which helps to increase lift and makes flying easier.

16. Globe Skimmer Dragonfly

Globe skimmer Dragonflies can travel for thousands of miles from India to Africa when they migrate.

For an insect that only measures around 1.8 inches (4.5 cm), it is astonishing to think that these creatures can travel for thousands of miles from India to Africa. And they do this every October.

For many years, this behavior baffled scientists as swathes of globe skimmers would gather on the Indian subcontinent before flitting off and reappearing in the Maldives. After this, they would move on to Africa, but it now seems that it’s all to do with the availability of prevailing winds that only come around at a certain time of year.

Couple these winds with the dragonfly’s ability to store fuel and the way it beats its wings at a specific frequency, and you’ve got an animal that can fly for up to 90 hours without stopping. Not only can these insects travel incredible distances, but new remote populations have been discovered in places like Easter Island, which do not migrate and yet are 2,174 miles (3500 km) from the nearest mainland.

17. Great White Shark

It’s thought that great white sharks use the earth’s magnetic field to guide them on their way during their migrations.

The great white shark may be one of the most feared fish on the planet, but let’s face it, it’s also pretty fascinating. Nothing is more fascinating about this ocean predator than its seasonal migration.

Trackers have often been placed on great white sharks to learn more about their migration, as not a lot is currently understood other than they probably migrate for feeding or breeding. The longest distance of a great white was tracked at around 12,000 miles (19,312 km) on a journey between South Africa and the northern tip of Australia and back again. The entire trip took the shark less than nine months.

In North America, great whites will usually swim out to an area between Baja and Hawaii known as the white shark cafe where they will hunt. They typically spend around three months here before returning. Just like other sea animals, like the whale, it’s thought that sharks use the earth’s magnetic field to guide them on their way.

Critical Role of Animal Migration in Ecosystem Health

Importance of animal migration to the ecosystem
The Annual Migration of Wildebeest in Africa is a Crucial Food Source for Local Predators such as Lions, Hyenas, and Crocodiles

Migration is clearly important to the survival of many animal and bird species. But the importance of it doesn’t end there. Did you know that animal migration also plays an important role for the ecosystem?

Through migration various ecosystems are connected where they would otherwise never be. Not only this but migration means that areas are equally exploited for food. Without migration, there may be some ecosystems that would never be used for their food sources. Amazingly, everything seems to fall into place to ensure there are no food surpluses with migratory birds not frequenting equatorial areas where surpluses do not occur due to annual productivity.

Moreover, by moving from their breeding grounds to more abundant areas during winter, animals give these areas the chance to naturally regenerate. By the time they’re ready to return to breed, everything they need will have been replenished.

Migration can also impact the population of resident species as incoming migrants may become a main prey animal for local predators. As this happens, the population of predators grows, but so does the resident prey, as they are not being as frequently targeted.

How Climate Change is Disrupting Animal Migration

How climate change is disrupting animal migration
Warming Temperatures are Altering Migration Routes and Reducing Food Availability for Caribou

Migration in animals is being affected by climate change because many of their seasonal cues are being taken away. In some areas, this problem is happening more severely than others. Take the Arctic, for example, one of the most rapidly changing environments because of climate change. Here, seasonal cues are becoming less and less reliable for migratory birds and animals. This has caused the obvious movement of migration times with some species moving their migration forward by as much as 2 weeks. NASA has performed studies to show that annual migration has been moving forward by as much as half a day every year since 1991.

What’s concerning is that owing to global warming, many animals are being forced to retreat to cooler climates. This might seem harmless when you first think about it but consider the potential for diseases being brought to new areas along with this wildlife. The results of these diseases could have drastic implications for humans in areas such as tourism and fishing.

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