Outforia Quicktake: Key Takeaways
- Migration is a behavioral adaptation that animals undertake for survival. It generally includes movement for breeding, feeding, and responding to climatic changes.
- Various animals, including mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians, and insects, undertake both short and long-distance migrations, using environmental cues to navigate.
- The patterns of migration can vary even within the same species and take place via land, air, and water.
- Some of the most notable migrations are done by the wildebeest in the Serengeti Plains, Caribou in the Arctic region of Alaska and Canada, Burchell’s zebras in Africa, and Arctic terns, who have the longest migration of any animal, traveling about 25,000 miles (40,234 km) from the Arctic to the Antarctic.
- Aquatic animals, including marine mammals, fish, invertebrates, and marine reptiles, also migrate. For instance, Atlantic sturgeon and Atlantic salmon move from the ocean into freshwater rivers to spawn.
Every year, many different types of animals that migrate make short and long-distance journeys for breeding, feeding, and other reasons.
Migration is described as a behavioral adaptation that animals need or choose to do to survive. Animals that have all of the resources they need to live in one place typically don’t migrate. There are many different types of migration, including by land, air, and water.
Why Do Animals Migrate?
Animals migrate for many different reasons, but major factors usually include food availability, climate and temperature changes, and breeding.
There are two main types of migration, which include obligate migration and facultative migration.
Obligate migrants are animals that have to migrate every year to meet certain needs and survive. Facultative migration is optional.
The two main types of migration are further split into four categories that describe migratory patterns and behaviors in more detail.
Some animals are partial migrants, which means not all individuals of the same species will migrate.
Different populations of the same species may have different migration patterns, which is called differential migration.
Other animals are complete migrants, which means all individuals of the same species migrate annually in similar ways. Some animals may migrate some years but not others, which is called interruptive migration.
24 Animals That Migrate
Migration is the annual movement of animals influenced by behavioral adaptation, usually for food sources, breeding, or seasonal changes.
Migration doesn’t include the daily movements animals make within their home range. Migration does include short and long-distance movement patterns that usually occur seasonally or annually.
Migrating animals have different ways to tell when it’s time to migrate.
For example, some animals use the sun, the Earth’s magnetic field, or the stars to help them navigate their migration route between their home range and the place they migrate to.
Animals that participate in short migrations may use landmarks or smell to figure out where to go.
Many different animals migrate, including mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians, and insects. In this list, you can learn about some amazing animals that migrate and why.
Perhaps one of the most famous migrations is the Great Migration in the Serengeti Plains. Wildebeests are famous for making the great trek across this savanna region in Africa from Tanzania to Kenya.
As many as two million wildebeests travel in large herds across the Serengeti once a year to find new food sources in time for the dry season.
Wildebeests begin their migration in the southern Serengeti around late April to early May and head north towards the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya.
Wildebeests face many dangers along the trek, including crossing the Grumeti and Mara rivers where large crocodiles await their next meal.
Those that manage to survive the journey will make their way back in the late fall. The entire journey is about 500 miles (800 km).
Check out this documentary to see the Great Migration.
Caribou (Rangifer tarandus) take part in one of the longest terrestrial animal migrations in the world.
Caribou make a long round-trip migration over 745 miles (1,199 km) each year. Some populations have been known to travel more than 2,500 miles (4,023 km) per year.
Researchers tracked the movements of 1,000 caribou in the Arctic region of Alaska and Canada for two decades to figure out what influenced their movements.
The study determined that caribou migrate mainly due to food availability, climate patterns, and weather conditions.
Caribou also migrate to reduce their vulnerability to predation when it’s time to give birth to calves.
There are some populations that don’t migrate, such as the boreal woodland caribou in Canada and the northern US.
Caribou do most of their traveling in the summer months after giving birth as they try to take advantage of the green vegetation that disappears as quickly as it arrives in the Arctic tundra.
3. Burchell’s Zebra
The Burchell’s zebra is native to East Africa and South Africa.
Burchell’s zebras participate in a large, 300-mile migration between the floodplains of the Chobe River in Namibia to Botswana.
A group of researchers put GPS collars on a group of 8 zebras to track their migration pattern. As the dry season in East and South Africa arrives in the fall, the zebras begin their trek to wetter lands.
By late December, the GPS collars showed that at least 7 of the zebras traveled 150 miles to the Nxai Pan National Park.
The zebras remained in this area and fed on the grasses for about two months before heading back.
The Burchell’s zebra migration is influenced by seasonal changes. When the dry season arrives, zebras need to move to areas that have fresh water and nutritious grazing areas.
4. American Bison
The American bison is a migratory mammal that was once very abundant throughout most of North America.
There were about 30-60 million American bison living across the continent, mainly in the Great Plains, prior to the mid-1800s. Populations drastically declined after they were extensively hunted to near-extinction.
American bison are now considered extinct in most of their historic range.
The Yellowstone National Park is the only place in North America that has maintained the American bison population since prehistoric times.
About 5,900 American bison were recorded in Yellowstone in 2022. There are two herd populations recognized in the region, which include the northern and central populations.
American bison in Yellowstone participate in short migrations according to seasonal changes.
Described as the “green wave”, American bison will move based on the greening of vegetation in spring.
Bison play a key role in promoting the health of grasses due to their grazing habits by allowing plants and grasses to continuously grow.
The bison in Yellowstone have winter and summer ranges. They travel about 70 miles (113 km) between each area.
During the summer, they move to grasslands with nutritious food sources. Common winter ranges include the Gardiner Basin, the Black Tail Deer Plateau, and along the Madison River.
Once snow begins to blanket their winter range, they move back up to their summer range.
Saiga migrations are mainly influenced by food and water sources. They remain in desert steppe areas during the spring and summer when vegetation is most abundant.
As fall approaches, large herds of up to 1,000 saigas begin their migration south to find food and water before snow arrives.
Mating occurs during December and saigas will move back up north to their summer range by April. Young are born in the summer range around June. Some herds may travel up to 600 miles per year.
6. Eastern Red Bat
Eastern red bats, also called red bats, are native to North America. Their range stretches from the southern border of Canada south to Central and South America.
Red bats travel south to Central and South America between August and October for the winter to enjoy warmer temperatures. Once spring arrives in mid-April, red bats begin their migration back to the northern portions of their range for the summer.
Red bats migrate due to temperature changes. They can’t live in areas with below freezing temperatures. While red bats are at their winter grounds, they hibernate in trees.
Some red bat populations in the warmer, southern parts of their range are permanent residents. This means that eastern red bats are partial migrants.
7. Bearded Pig
Bearded pigs are native to the Malay Peninsula in Thailand and the archipelagos of Indonesia and the Philippines in Southeast Asia.
Bearded pigs live in a variety of habitats, including tropical rainforests, mangroves, montane cloud forests, and beaches.
Bearded pig migrations align with the fruiting events of the forests they visit for food. Fruit is a large part of the bearded pig diet.
They rely on macaque monkeys that drop fruits on the ground. They also eat other organic matter, such as roots and gum tree seedlings.
Hundreds of bearded pigs congregate to migrate to new feeding sites when mast fruiting events occur. Bearded pig herds may travel anywhere between 18-380 miles (29-612 km) to find fruiting sites.
8. Northern Elephant Seal
The northern elephant seal is a marine mammal that lives in an open ocean habitat in the North Pacific Ocean. These large marine mammals can weigh up to 4,500 pounds (2,041 kg)!
Most of their time is spent underwater at depths around 1,700 ft (518 m). They still need to come up to the surface to breathe, but they can stay underwater for more than an hour without coming up for air.
Northern elephant seals participate in two migrations per year. They migrate to feeding grounds and breeding grounds. The second part of their migration occurs when they return to land to molt.
Females and males have different feeding grounds. Females visit southern portions of their range to feed offshore along the coasts of Washington and Oregon.
Males stay farther north around the Gulf of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands in the Bering Sea.
Northern elephant seals travel south to breed offshore near the Channel Islands of California and Baja California in Mexico during the winter.
Molting occurs during the early spring to August. During the molting season, adults will travel back to their feeding areas.
9. Florida Manatee
The Florida manatee is a subspecies of the West Indian manatee that inhabits the coastal waters of Florida and the Caribbean.
The West Indian manatee has a larger range that stretches from the southern coast of Florida south to northern South America.
Florida manatees participate in seasonal migrations because they can’t survive in colder waters below 68°F (20°C) for extended periods of time.
During the winter, Florida manatees inhabit warmer natural springs and coastal waters of Florida’s Gulf Coast and the Atlantic coast.
In the summer, they travel farther north along the eastern coast of the US. Some travel as far north as Massachusetts. However, most Florida manatees don’t travel any farther north than the Carolinas.
10. Humpback Whale
The humpback whale can be found in all ocean basins around the world. Populations are divided into 14 DPS according to the region they live in.
Feeding grounds are in colder waters, while breeding grounds are in warm temperate to tropical waters.
Migration routes and patterns depend on specific regional populations. For example, some North Pacific populations may migrate 3,000 miles (4,828 km) from Alaska all the way to Hawai’i.
Other individuals travel to breeding grounds along the Pacific coast of Mexico. North Pacific populations visit feeding grounds all along the US West Coast up to the southern coast of British Columbia, Canada.
The western North Pacific population breeds near the islands of the Philippines and Japan and feeds in the West Bering Sea and the Aleutian Islands, Alaska.
11. Red Crab
The red crab is a famous crustacean on Christmas Island in Australia. Every year, red crabs take over the island as they migrate from their forest habitat to the ocean to spawn.
The miraculous site of millions of red crabs taking over roadways and beaches is expected each year by residents on Christmas Island.
Red crabs have a unique way of telling when it’s time to migrate, and punctuality is super important to these critters!
The beginning of their migration is marked by the first rainfall that kicks off the monsoon wet season around October or November.
Red crabs use the phases of the moon to track their timing. They spawn during the last quarter of the moon. If they miss this phase of the moon cycle, they wait until the next month to spawn.
Once they’ve arrived at the coast, males dig burrows for females to join and mate. Females stay behind in the burrows after mating. Males take a quick trip to the sea before migrating back to the forest.
Females lay up to 100,000 eggs in one brood and release their eggs in the ocean.
Once the larvae have developed into baby red crabs, they come out of the water and settle into forest debris and rocky outcrops for the first few years of their life.
12. Green Sea Turtle
The green sea turtle is the largest hard-shelled sea turtle named for its fat that takes on a green hue due to its seagrass and algae diet.
Green sea turtles are separated into 11 distinct population segments (DPS) depending on where they live. All green sea turtle DPS are protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as threatened or endangered.
Every few years, female green sea turtles participate in migrations from their open ocean habitat to nesting sites on beaches.
The largest green sea turtle nesting sites are found on the beaches of Tortuguero, Costa Rica and Raine Island, Australia. In the US, green sea turtles have nesting sites mainly on the Hawaiian Islands and US Pacific Island territories.
Green sea turtles travel hundreds to thousands of miles from the foraging grounds in the ocean to the nesting beaches.
Females usually always return to the nesting site where they were born, unless the site is severely disturbed. Once males hatch and reach the sea, they never return to land.
13. Atlantic Sturgeon
The Atlantic sturgeon is a fish species native to the eastern coast of North America. Their range stretches from southern Canada south to northern Florida.
Adults participate in migrations for breeding purposes. While they live in the ocean, Atlantic sturgeons travel up freshwater rivers and estuaries to spawn in the warmer months.
Baby Atlantic sturgeons are born in freshwater river systems and spend a few months in brackish water until they mature. Adults will return to the same spawning grounds they were born in to spawn their young.
Spawning in freshwater habitats allows baby Atlantic sturgeons to have a better chance at survival. If they spawned in the ocean, they’d be more vulnerable to predators.
14. Atlantic Salmon
Similar to the Atlantic sturgeon, the Atlantic salmon participates in annual migrations to freshwater habitats to spawn.
There are three major Atlantic salmon populations, which include the North American, European, and Baltic Atlantic salmon.
In the US, Atlantic salmon live in the coastal waters and river systems of the New England region.
Atlantic salmon use a number of techniques to navigate during their migration. They can use the Earth’s magnetic field to help orient their location.
When traveling up rivers and estuaries, Atlantic salmon use their sense of smell to detect how close they are to their spawning grounds.
When young Atlantic salmon are born in their spawning grounds, they learn the smell of their location as they travel back out to sea.
North American Atlantic salmon begin their migration in the spring. Once adults spawn, they travel back to sea and move toward the Labrador Sea where they spend the rest of the year.
15. Golden Jellyfish
The golden jellyfish is a famous resident of Jellyfish Lake on the island of Palau, Oceania.
The name is very fitting because these jellies spend each day seeking the sun’s rays, which influences their daily movements across the marine lake.
The golden jellyfish is a subspecies of the spotted jellyfish, which is native to the Indian Ocean and parts of the West and South Pacific Ocean.
While daily movements generally aren’t considered migratory, golden jellies are an exception because their movements are very predictable and essential for survival.
Golden jellyfish seek sunlight because of a special, mutualistic relationship they have with a plant-like organism called zooxanthellae that lives in their tissues.
Zooxanthellae need sunlight to survive, so golden jellies spend their days following the movement of the sun. In return, the zooxanthellae provide golden jellyfish with important nutrients.
16. Canada Goose
Perhaps one of the most well-known birds in North America, the Canada goose is a common migratory bird found near permanent bodies of water.
Canada geese are well-adapted to urbanized environments and are often seen in parks and other areas with ponds or lakes.
Canada geese travel in flocks of 30-100 individuals. Larger flocks may be seen as the seasons change when it’s time for these birds to migrate. Their signature “V” formation and generally low flying heights makes them super easy to spot.
Permanent bodies of water are an essential part of geese habitat. When winter comes and the water in their home range freezes over, Canada geese begin to migrate south.
Canada geese are quick flyers that can maintain a speed of about 40 mph (64 kph). If wind conditions are favorable, they can fly as fast as 70 mph (114 kph).
With the right weather conditions, Canada geese can travel up to 1,500 miles (2,414 km) in just one day.
The average length of their trip south is about 2,000-3,000 miles (3,219-4,828 km). Canada geese are considered partial migrants because some populations stay in their home range permanently year-round.
17. Arctic Tern
The Arctic tern is a mostly white bird with a black head and bright orange feet and beak. The Arctic tern is one of the most noteworthy migratory birds because of its long migration from pole to pole.
Arctic terns travel all the way from the Arctic region in the north to the Antarctic in the south.
The 25,000-mile (40,234 km) round-trip journey gives the Arctic tern the record for the longest migration of any other animal in the world!
Some individuals have been recorded traveling even longer distances up to 60,000 miles (96,561 km) in one year.
The Arctic tern breeds in the Arctic region during the summer beginning in May to early June. In the late summer to early fall, Arctic terns begin their great migration to the Antarctic.
Unlike Canada geese that can be seen migrating, Arctic terns are rarely spotted during migration. Most of their migration takes place offshore.
Some individuals may travel over land for a short period of time, but it’s less common.
18. Ruby-throated Hummingbird
The only hummingbird species found in the eastern half of the US is the ruby-throated hummingbird. These tiny, fast-flying birds migrate every year to Mexico and Central America for the winter.
During the winter, ruby-throated hummingbirds live in open and dry tropical scrub habitats.
During the summer, ruby-throated hummingbirds can be found in semi-open habitats, including gardens, parks, and open woods.
Some individuals may live in Florida during the winter because of its warm, tropical climate.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds return to their home range, which is also their breeding grounds, in the spring and early summer.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds will make pit stops throughout their migration to feed on flowers.
19. American Robin
The American robin is one of the most common backyard visitors in North America. Often seen hopping along the ground, American robins are partial migrants.
Food sources and weather conditions are the main influences of their migratory patterns.
Individuals may stay in their home range year-round if they have abundant food sources. They may relocate in the winter if snowfall is heavy and persists longer than a few days.
American robins change their diet with the seasons. Insects and other invertebrates make up most of their diet in the summer. With less of these protein-rich food sources available in the winter, they mainly eat wild berries.
American robins occur in most of the US and Mexico year-round. Some populations travel to northern states and Canada during the summer. Some travel to the southern US and Mexico for winter.
20. Baltimore Oriole
The Baltimore oriole has striking orange feathers on its stomach, chest, and tail with a black head and wings. Baltimore orioles travel south to the tropics for the winter. Some individuals winter in southern Florida.
Baltimore orioles stay at their winter grounds until January or February before moving back up north.
By May, these birds are ready to settle into their northern breeding grounds and start working on their nests. Their summer range is in the eastern half of North America from southern Canada south to Louisiana.
When August comes around, most Baltimore orioles are ready to head south again for winter.
21. Broad-winged Hawk
In the spring and summer, the broad-winged hawk lives in its breeding grounds of the eastern US and southeastern Canada.
As winter approaches, these raptors migrate south to Central and South America. Smaller populations don’t travel as far and winter in the southernmost portions of Florida west to Texas.
Broad-winged hawks travel in flocks when they migrate. Most individuals migrate in September.
During the breeding season, broad-winged hawks live in deciduous and mixed coniferous-deciduous forests.
You may be able to spot broad-winged hawks soaring in the sky in the early breeding season as they circle in the air and call out to potential mates.
22. Emperor Penguin
Emperor penguins travel to dense sheets of ice attached to Antarctica’s coastline, called fast ice, for breeding in early spring.
Once females lay a single egg, they hand it off to males for incubation. Females then travel to the sea to forage for food.
Males stay with the egg until it hatches, which takes a little over two months. Emperor penguin colonies remain at the breeding grounds until the young are about two months old.
By October or November, emperor penguin colonies travel to foraging grounds where open ocean waters are easy to access.
They spend the late fall and winter foraging for food before it’s time to return to the breeding grounds.
23. Monarch Butterfly
Monarch butterflies are known for their annual two-way migration. Their migratory pattern is similar to migratory birds.
The monarch butterfly is native to North America. There are two populations of monarch butterflies recognized by region.
The western population lives west of the Rocky Mountains, while the eastern population lives east of the mountain range.
Monarch butterflies that live in western North America migrate to California in the winter. The eastern population travels to the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico to overwinter.
Monarch butterflies can’t survive below freezing temperatures. If temperatures in their winter range drop below freezing, they’re forced to use their fat reserves.
Monarch butterflies may travel up to 3,000 miles (4,828 km) one way to reach their winter grounds. It takes about two months for some monarch butterflies to reach their winter range.
About 3-4 generations of monarch butterflies pass before a full migration is completed from their home range to winter grounds and back.
24. Wandering Glider
The wandering glider is a dragonfly found all around the world, except in Antarctica. Wandering gliders participate in migrations to find suitable breeding grounds.
Populations that live in areas that get cold during the winter will also migrate due to seasonal temperature changes.
Some may not consider the wandering glider a true migrant, but rather a wanderer as its name suggests.
Their movements are frequent, but their migration patterns aren’t as consistent compared to the annual migrations of other animals.
However, when waters in their home range get too cold, wandering gliders will travel farther south to find warmer waters.
The migratory behavior of wandering gliders is influenced by breeding because they breed in slow-moving and stagnant waters.
Do aquatic animals migrate?
Yes, aquatic animals do migrate! Migratory aquatic animals can include marine mammals, fish, invertebrates, and marine reptiles.
Sea turtles, whales, and sharks are some of the many aquatic animals that migrate.
There are also animals that live in the deep, dark depths of the ocean that migrate vertically to the ocean’s surface at night and back down to the ocean’s twilight zone during the day. This activity is known as the Diel Vertical Migration.
Which animals migrate the most?
The Arctic tern is generally described as the most migratory animal in the world. It travels the longest distance of any migratory bird or animal in the world with its 25,000-mile migration.
One of the most famous terrestrial migrations is the Great Migration in the Serengeti.
Millions of wildebeests and hundreds of thousands of zebras and gazelles participate in the annual migration across the Serengeti Plains.
Do fish migrate in rivers?
Yes, fish like the Atlantic sturgeon and Atlantic salmon migrate from the ocean into freshwater rivers to spawn. These fish travel up rivers to lay and fertilize eggs.
This behavioral adaptation is likely to help increase the chances of survival for the young.
The ocean houses many predators that like to feed on fish eggs and babies. Baby Atlantic sturgeon and salmon don’t enter the ocean until they’re almost fully developed.