Animal migrations are some of the most moving (literally) phenomena Mother Nature has to offer, and these 10 amazing examples redefine the word “superlative” on a number of levels. Fastest, largest, longest and even stupidest – when animals migrate, they often do it in a BIG way.
#1 - Monarch Butterflies: It’s a Wing Thing
The mass migration of Monarch Butterflies is arguably the longest – both in distance and time – of any insect species. Conducted over a number of seasons and generations, perhaps the most amazing thing about the Monarch migration is that their overwintering refuge in central Mexico’s Oyamel Fir forests wasn’t discovered until 1975!
Will the majestic Monarchs be able to continue their epic migrations in the coming years? They face a range of difficulties, some but not all the result of human activity. Illegal logging, land clearing and simple population pressure will likely increase but besides these, regular El Nino events such as the one in 2009-2010 soak their winter refuges with rain, sleet and snow. Can the Monarchs persevere? Only time will tell.
#2 - The Great Wildebeest Migration
he annual migration of over 1 million African Wildebeest and Zebras has been well documented by filmmakers and wildlife documentary producers for decades. Every February in the Ngorongoro area of Tanzania’s southern Serengeti plains, the “Great Wildebeest Migration” begins.
The exact starting date depends on the progress of the calving season during which around 500,000 calves are born, but by early March up to a half million zebra, nearly 2 million wildebeest and around 100,000 other grazing animals are on the move, headed towards the fertile plains and woodlands of the western Serengeti across the border in Kenya’s Masai Mara region.
The final obstacle for the Serengeti’s thundering herd is also the most challenging: the Mara river. Animals already weakened by weeks of travel through dry and barren savannah offering little food or water must now run the gamut of flood-swollen, rushing waters and swarms of hungry crocodiles. Around 250,000 wildebeest will die during the course of their 1,800-mile migration but the herds have proved to be remarkably resilient.
#3 - Worst Case of Crabs EVAR
Christmas Island, an isolated Australian territory located in the Indian Ocean, is home to about 1,400 people.. and up to 120 million Red Crabs. Luckily for the inhabitants the crabs aren’t carnivorous (just occasionally cannibalistic), but their sheer volume results in a unique spectacle played out each year when tens of millions of the burrowing crabs migrate to the sea to lay their eggs.
That’s only half the story – once the baby crabs complete their marine larval phase, they clamber back onto the shore and migrate into the island’s central rainforest. Although the baby crabs are very small, they make up for their size with numbers: each adult female releases about 120,000 fertilized eggs. You can do the math, my calculator can’t display that many zeros! The “red tide” of young crabs that sweeps across beaches, through towns and across gold course has to be seen to be believed… so here it is!
#4 - Arctic Terns: Long Distance Voyagers
It’s not only human jet-setters who see two summers every year; the Arctic Tern has been doing it for countless centuries. This smallish seabird holds the record for the longest migration route of any known creature.
The Arctic Tern’s travels take it from breeding grounds in northern Canada down to the southern ocean off the Antarctic continent, and back again. Considering the terns’ indirect course used to take advantage of prevailing winds, the average bird will make a 45,000 mile (over 70,000 km) round trip each year.
Arctic Terns are long-lived birds that can live upwards of 30 years. It’s estimated that in the course of a lifetime, these long distance champions will fly over 1.5 million miles (2.4 million km)… enough to take it to the Moon and back 5 or 6 times!
#5 - Caribou: Have You Herd?
One of the longest known and best documented large-scale animal migrations is that of the northern Caribou. Not all caribou migrate and those that do, don’t always follow the same route each time. Much depends on the vagaries of the weather – and based on that, the availability of food.
The three largest herds of caribou are the George River herd in northern Quebec province in Canada, the the Western Arctic herd based in northwest Alaska, and the Taimyr Peninsula herd found across the Bering Strait in Siberia. Large caribou herds migrate from about 100 to over 500 miles each year.
A few fun facts about Caribou… did you know that herds once roamed the Great Lakes states and Maine? Though Caribou and Reindeer are of the same species, the latter term is used to refer to domesticated caribou kept most commonly by the Sami people of northern Scandinavia’s Lapland region.
#6 - March of the Emperor Penguins
Emperor Penguins aren’t the only species of this iconic antarctic bird that migrate but they are perhaps the most famous, thanks in part to the beautifully filmed chronicle entitled March of the Penguins. These magnificent creatures are highly adapted to the incredibly harsh conditions they live in; even so, breeding during the bone-chilling, pitch black Antarctic winter is a monumental achievement in and of itself.
Though the migration of Emperor Penguins to and from their inland nesting grounds may seem short compared to that of other animals in more temperate climes, the journey is fraught with hardships and the margin for error is exceedingly thin.
So well adapted are Emperor Penguins to the Antarctic’s hostile conditions, the species is not considered to be threatened. Currently around 30 colonies exist and their population fluctuates due to weather conditions and the varying distance from their nesting grounds (which remain in the same place) and the constantly shifting edge of the sea ice.
#7 - The Return of the Swallows to San Juan Capistrano
A miraculous migration, is what some call the annual return of the Swallows to Capistrano. It’s an event that has taken on the luster of romance and sentimentality as each year on March 19th – St. Joseph’s Day – the swallows traditionally make their return to the Mission San Juan Capistano in the town of San Juan Capistrano, California, near San Diego.
The Mission was founded by Franciscan friars on on All Saints Day (November 1st) of 1776 and its arched belfry soon attracted the local swallows who used its shelter to protect their nests. An earthquake in 1812 exposed the rafters of The Great Stone Church but the Cliff Swallows were not dissuaded from nesting there. Where do the swallows return from, you might ask? Their migration is actually somewhat miraculous as they fly 6,000 miles (10,000 km) south to their wintering range in Goya, Argentina, and then must make the long and arduous return trip.
#8 - Gray Whales: It’s No Fluke
Gray Whales are a popular sightseeing attraction in and around Baja California but few are aware of the creatures’ long distance migration. In fact, Gray Whales have the longest migration route of any mammal, land or sea.
Each year, these medium-sized, mild-mannered cetaceans make a round trip of 10,000-12,000 miles (around 18,000 km) between their winter calving lagoons off southern California and Mexico and their preferred summer feeding grounds around Alaska’s Aleutian Islands and the Bering Strait
Besides providing enjoyment for whale-watchers up and down the California coast, Gray Whales have another claim to fame: the 1988 effort to rescue three whales who overstayed in the arctic and became trapped in sea ice off Point Barrow. The drama was closely followed on American television and the rescue (which cost $5.5 million) entailed the use of Coast Guard helicopters dropping 5-ton concrete pillars to break up the ice and a Soviet icebreaker that helped carve a path from the whales’ shrinking pool of unfrozen water to the open sea. Cold War indeed!
#9 - Legend of the Lemmings
Lemmings are a species of rodent found in northern Scandinavia, Siberia and Canada’s arctic regions. Being a herbivore in the tundra is a risky proposition and lemming populations rise and fall – sometimes precipitously – in good times and bad. Normally solitary creatures, lemmings may go on mass migrations when biological urges dictate the need to find new feeding grounds. At times, rivers and cliffs may block their paths – be assured, though, that lemmings who fall or drown in the process of migration do not do so willingly.
A widely believed myth about lemmings is that they occasionally erupt across the arctic landscape on suicidal “death marches”, sacrificing themselves for the betterment of the species when food supplies run short. Not so – the myth was perpetuated by a 1958 Disney nature documentary called “White Wilderness”. It was later revealed that the film was made with the extensive use of staged footage, such as lemmings being filmed on a snow-covered turntable or launched into the air by (human) hand. Here’s a short video compilation from the film that features ONLY the fake footage:
#10 - Passenger Pigeons, RIP
One of the greatest migratory species in history is… history. Passenger Pigeons by the hundreds of millions used to darken American skies for hours, even days at a time as they migrated to and from their forested nesting grounds. It was said that the ground beneath their roosts was covered with up to 2 inches of droppings and the branches of mature trees would snap under the weight of dozens of nests. At its greatest, the total number of Passenger Pigeons was estimated to be about 6 billion birds. So, what happened?
WE happened… the perfect predator meeting the perfect prey. Passenger Pigeons were low fliers whose nests were easily accessible. They were also, from all accounts, quite tasty. By 1880 the massive migrating flocks were no more and the last wild bird was shot in 1900. The last of the species, a captive bird named “Martha”, died in 1914.
We know today that human hunters were not the sole cause of the Passenger Pigeon’s demise. Habitat loss was a major factor – as the sprawling forests of the eastern U.S. were cut down, the pigeons had nowhere to roost. In addition, the birds could not adapt to the emerging paradigm of The Earth Plus Humans, unlike their Rock Dove and Mourning Dove cousins. It was a “perfect storm”… from which the Passenger Pigeon was unable to emerge.
The sad tale of the Passenger Pigeon echoes into the modern age as a warning of what might be. Safety in numbers is a relative term – when the numbers add up wrong, your numbers will decrease. There was no such thing as “environmental awareness” a century ago and it’s assumed humanity has learned a lot about peaceful coexistence with the rest of the animal kingdom. The fate of the world’s remaining migratory species will prove if we really have learned, or are doomed to repeat the same mistakes.