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7 Animals and their epic migration journeys

7 Animals and their epic migration journeys

From monarch butterflies to deep-sea diving turtles, here are seven animals and their long, epic migration journeys from one corner of the world to another

Animals need to maximise their intake of energy-rich foods in order to live and reproduce. Some go to great lengths to find supplies in places where food is plentiful at particular times of the year. Where some animals are covered in bright colours and others have impressive moustaches, these animals travel thousands of miles each year.

1. The albatross’ long-distance cruise

Albatross flies over waterAlbatrosses fly day and night, stopping only occasionally. Credit: Ondrej Prosicky

Albatross parents travel huge distances across the Southern Ocean to find food for their single chick. On just one foray in search of squid, a bird will journey up to 9,000 miles, covering 560 miles in 24 hours with few stops, at speeds of about 50mph

"The albatross is a glider rather than an active flyer, cruising for long distances over the ocean while rarely flapping its wings"

Its flight path takes advantage of prevailing winds and the updraughts from waves. When diving, the albatross turns into the wind as it nears the water, giving it a lift to glide back upwards.

An albatross chick needs to learn how to fly efficiently, too, as it might spend the first seven or eight years on the wing before returning to its natal home to find a mate.

2. Leatherback turtles’ and highways in the sea

Leatherback turtles can hold their breath for 40 minutes. Credit: Wirestock

Leatherback turtles are air-breathing reptiles that use deep-sea highways to travel on an unexpected migration. Turtles that nest on the tropical beaches of Suriname often turn up off the coast of Scotland en-route to the Arctic 4,325 miles away. Satellite tracking has revealed this regular northernly migration is in search of jellyfish.

The turtles follow the contours of underwater canyons and mountains, each individual in a population following almost the same track. They travel at about 37 miles a day, diving 3,280ft or more and remaining submerged for up to 40 minutes. At these icy depths, they keep their muscles warm by maintaining a body temperature several degrees higher than the surrounding sea water.

Many sea serpent stories from the west coast of Scotland could well be the result of sightings of leatherback turtles, the world’s largest sea turtles, who have a body length of seven feet.

3. Whale calves and nautical nurseries

Southern Right Whale surfacingFor southern right whale calves, play becomes training for later in life. Credit: Thierry Eidenweil

Every year the southern right whales of the South Atlantic migrate from Antarctica to their breeding grounds off Patagonia. In summer, they feed on plankton and krill from the surface of the polar sea. At the onset of winter, they return to a safe haven at Peninsula Valdez on Argentina’s Patagonia coast to mate, give birth, and rear their young, well away from patrolling killer whales. 

"For southern right whale calves, their time with their mother is vital in learning valuable survival skills"

As the southern summer approaches, playfulness gives way to training, as the mother and offspring move back and forth across the bay at high speed. Just as humpback whales have been known to protect other animals from killer whales, the mother trains her offspring for the long journey to Antarctica and to swim to outrun killer whales.

4. The caribou’s long march

Caribou Herd Crosses SnowCaribou travel in herds that can stretch for 185 miles. Credit: Zanskar

Epic journeys are a way of life for the caribou of Arctic Canada. Hundreds of thousands of caribou travel about 620 miles in each direction between their summer calving grounds on the tundra and their winter refuges in the great coniferous forests of the taiga.

In early winter, the tundra is covered by ice that prevents the caribou from brushing the snow aside to feed on the vegetation beneath, so they move into the forests where the snow is powdery. In spring, thousands of animals travel back to the rugged tundra together following well-worn trails, with some herds stretching for 185 miles. 

On reaching the calving grounds in May the pregnant females give birth immediately and their calves grow quickly. Once the calves learn to forage, the herds move on a further 125 miles to lower, greener pastures. By July, small groups begin to trickle south towards the tree line, arriving in the forests in September, ready for winter.

5. The tern’s epic flights from pole to pole

Arctic Tern flyingTerns take various routes in their migratory journey. Credit: Dodge65

Arctic terns embark on some of the longest journeys made by any bird. Those that nest in the Arctic fly to the Antarctic and back each year, a round trip of more than 25,000 miles.

"Terns fly for eight months of the year, and, at either destination, it is in perpetual daylight"

Terns take various routes. When heading south in autumn, the Scandinavian and British birds hug the Atlantic coast of Europe and north-west Africa, though evidence shows that, as a result of climate change, bird migration is being profoundly changed. Other Terns cross the ocean on easterly winds to Brazil and follow the coast of South America, where birds from Canada and Greenland ride on westerly winds to Europe and then follow the same route south as European terns.

The terns feed on the way, plunge-diving to capture fish near the surface. The 24 hours of sunlight at each end of the world enables them to maximise their feeding time when they breed in the north and moult in the south.

6. The eel’s extraordinary voyage

Common Eel swimmingCommon eels change colour as they migrate. Credit: Michel Viard

Common eels undertake an unusual migration, which once was a mystery to philosophers and naturalists, swimming thousands of miles from river to sea to spawn. Eels live in the rivers and lakes of Europe and North America, but, when the time comes to reproduce, they head for the sea.

On their journey, they become streamlined silver eels. Their target is the Sargasso Sea. Here, they spawn and die, while their eggs develop into larvae, which are carried on the currents. In the case of European larvae, the Gulf Stream takes them to the Atlantic coasts of Europe.

On entering fresh water, the larvae change into glass eels and as they swim upstream, their colour deepens and they become yellow eels. They feed in the rivers for six or seven years before embarking on the return journey to the Sargasso Sea.

7. Migrating monarchs and their butterfly trees

Monarch Butterfly rests on leafMonarch butterflies are four inches in size. Credit: rainbow-7

The endagered monarch butterfly travels thousands of miles in its short, eight month life. Adult butterflies leave southern Canada and the Northern US in July and fly south on a 1,250–1,860 mile journey to California and Mexico where they spend the winter on the oyamel "butterfly trees".

Monarchs mate in spring, and by March the first butterflies are flying north, laying eggs as they go. When egg-laying is completed, the butterflies die, where their offspring journey north.

Banner credit: Albatross (Ondrej Prosicky)

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