What is Migration

Definition of Migration

The regular, often seasonal, movement of animals from one region to another.


Migration is a crucial survival strategy for many species. For example, the Arctic Tern, a small seabird, undertakes the longest migration of any animal, travelling from its breeding grounds in the Arctic to its wintering grounds in the Antarctic—a round trip of about 44,000 miles each year. This epic journey ensures that the Arctic Tern experiences two summers, maximising its feeding opportunities and breeding success.

Migration also showcases incredible navigational skills. The Globe Skimmer Dragonfly, another fascinating migratory species, embarks on a multi-generational journey across the Indian Ocean from India to Africa and back, covering around 11,000 miles. These tiny insects use wind patterns and possibly even the Earth’s magnetic fields to navigate their long-distance travels.

Migratory animals often play critical roles in nutrient distribution, pollination, and seed dispersal, contributing to the health and balance of their habitats. For instance, the salmon’s migration from the ocean to freshwater streams for spawning brings essential marine nutrients inland, benefiting a wide range of terrestrial and aquatic organisms.

Migration’s importance is also evident in the adaptive strategies animals have developed. From energy storage and efficient navigation to physical changes like streamlined bodies in fish or the powerful wings of birds, these adaptations are tailored to meet the demands of long-distance travel.

Types of Migration

Migration can take various forms, each adapted to the specific needs and environmental conditions of different species. Understanding these types helps us appreciate the diversity and complexity of migratory behaviours.

Seasonal Migration

Seasonal migration is perhaps the most well-known type, where animals move between different habitats in response to seasonal changes. Birds are the most iconic seasonal migrants. For example, the Swainson’s Hawk travels over 10,000 miles from North America to South America every year, following the availability of prey. This type of migration ensures that animals can exploit the best conditions for feeding and breeding throughout the year.

Latitudinal Migration

Latitudinal migration involves animals moving north and south along latitude lines. This is commonly seen in birds, but also in marine species. The Humpback Whale, for instance, migrates from cold polar feeding grounds in the summer to warmer tropical breeding grounds in the winter. This migration can span up to 5,000 miles one way and is crucial for the survival of calves, which are born in the warmer, safer waters.

Altitudinal Migration

Altitudinal migration is the vertical movement between higher and lower elevations. This is often observed in mountain-dwelling animals, such as the Mountain Goat, which moves to lower elevations during the winter to escape harsh weather and to higher elevations in the summer for better foraging. This type of migration helps animals avoid extreme temperatures and find adequate food sources throughout the year.

Reproductive Migration

Reproductive migration is driven by the need to reach specific breeding sites that offer the best conditions for the survival of offspring. Sea turtles, such as the Loggerhead Turtle, undertake long migrations from their feeding grounds to nesting beaches, where females lay their eggs. Similarly, the Chinook Salmon migrates from the ocean back to the freshwater streams where it was born, navigating hundreds of miles upstream to spawn.

Nomadic Migration

Nomadic migration is characterised by irregular and unpredictable movements in search of resources. This type of migration is often seen in species living in environments with highly variable resources, like the African Elephant. These elephants do not follow a set migratory route but instead roam vast distances in search of water and food, adapting their movements to the availability of these resources.

Causes of Migration

The driving forces behind animal migration are varied and complex, often intertwined with environmental conditions, biological needs, and genetic predispositions. Understanding these causes provides insight into the remarkable journeys undertaken by migratory species.

Environmental Factors

Environmental changes play a significant role in prompting migration. Animals often move to find more favourable conditions, such as better temperatures, food sources, and water availability. For example, wildebeest in the Serengeti undertake a massive migration in response to the seasonal rains. They travel over 1 600 kms (1,000 miles) each year, following the rains to find fresh grazing grounds, a journey that also supports a plethora of other wildlife, including predators like lions.

Reproductive Needs

Reproduction is a powerful motivator for migration. Many species migrate to breeding grounds that offer optimal conditions for the survival of their offspring. The Atlantic Puffin, for example, migrates to specific coastal areas to nest in burrows on cliff sides, where they can safely raise their chicks away from many predators.

Predation Pressure

Avoiding predators is another critical reason for migration. By moving to safer areas, animals can reduce the risk of predation, especially during vulnerable periods like breeding or moulting. The Red Knot, a shorebird, migrates from the Arctic to the southern tip of South America. During its migration, it stops at specific staging areas with fewer predators, ensuring safer conditions for feeding and resting.

Genetic Programming

Migration is often ingrained in an animal’s genetic makeup, a behaviour passed down through generations. This genetic programming ensures that even young or inexperienced individuals can undertake complex migratory journeys. For instance, young Green Sea Turtles, after hatching, instinctively head towards the ocean and follow an innate migratory route to feeding grounds many miles away, even though they have never made the journey before.

Food and Resource Availability

The search for food is a fundamental driver of migration. Animals move to areas where food is abundant, ensuring they have enough energy to survive and reproduce. The Sooty Shearwater, a seabird, undertakes one of the longest migrations of any animal, travelling over 40,000 miles in a figure-eight pattern across the Pacific Ocean to follow the abundance of fish and squid. This migration allows them to exploit different marine environments at different times of the year.

Climate and Weather Patterns

Changes in climate and weather patterns can also trigger migration. Animals often move to avoid harsh weather conditions and find more hospitable environments. The Bar-tailed Godwit, for example, flies from its breeding grounds in Alaska to New Zealand, avoiding the cold Arctic winter. This incredible non-stop journey covers about 7,000 miles to escape extreme weather.

Physiological Adaptations

Migration demands remarkable physiological adaptations that enable animals to undertake long and often arduous journeys. These adaptations are crucial for their survival and success during migration.

Energy Storage

One of the most critical adaptations for migration is the ability to store and efficiently use energy. Many animals accumulate fat reserves before embarking on their journeys, providing a vital energy source. Birds like the Bar-tailed Godwit can double their body weight in fat before migrating. This fat is metabolised during their non-stop flights of up to 7,000 miles, ensuring they have enough energy to reach their destination without stopping for food or rest.

Navigation Mechanisms

Migratory animals possess sophisticated navigation systems that guide them across vast distances. Birds, for example, use a combination of the sun, stars, geomagnetic fields, and even olfactory cues to navigate. The European Starling can detect the Earth’s magnetic field using specialised cells in its beak, allowing it to maintain a precise course during migration. Additionally, sea turtles have an innate ability to navigate using the Earth’s magnetic fields, which helps them return to the exact beach where they were born to lay their eggs.

Physical Adaptations

Physical adaptations are also essential for migration. Birds often have specialised wing shapes that reduce energy expenditure during flight. The wings of the Arctic Tern are long and narrow, optimized for long-distance travel and allowing them to glide effortlessly over vast oceans. Fish like the Chinook Salmon develop stronger muscles and more streamlined bodies to navigate upstream currents during their migration from the ocean to freshwater spawning grounds.


Migratory animals must cope with varying temperatures along their routes. Some birds, such as the Swainson’s Hawk, have adapted to endure different climates by altering their plumage density. They grow thicker feathers in preparation for colder regions and shed them when migrating to warmer areas. This ability to regulate body temperature ensures they remain comfortable and efficient throughout their journey.

Hydration and Water Conservation

Maintaining hydration is crucial for migratory animals, especially those travelling through arid regions or vast oceans. Camels, known for their long migrations across deserts, can drink large quantities of water when it’s available and store it in their bodies. This adaptation allows them to survive for extended periods without water, making them well-suited for migration through harsh environments.

Sensory Enhancements

Enhanced sensory abilities are vital for successful migration. Many animals have acute senses that help them detect environmental cues and navigate effectively. Monarch Butterflies, for example, have specialised eyes that can perceive polarised light patterns, aiding their navigation during their long migration from North America to central Mexico. Similarly, whales use echolocation to navigate and communicate over long distances during their migratory journeys.

Examples of Migratory Species

Migration is a widespread phenomenon observed in various species across the animal kingdom. Here are some fascinating examples that illustrate the diversity and complexity of migratory behaviours.


Birds are perhaps the most well-known migratory animals, with many species undertaking incredible journeys.

  • Arctic Tern: The Arctic Tern holds the record for the longest migration of any animal. These small seabirds travel from their breeding grounds in the Arctic all the way to the Antarctic, covering an astonishing round-trip distance of about 70 000 kms (44,000 miles) each year. This journey allows them to experience continuous daylight and abundant food sources during both northern and southern summers.
  • Swainson’s Hawk: This raptor migrates from North America to South America, travelling over 16 000 kms (10,000 miles) each year. Swainson’s Hawks form large flocks, sometimes consisting of thousands of individuals, making their journey a remarkable spectacle. They follow weather patterns and thermal currents to conserve energy during their long flights.

Many mammals also exhibit impressive migratory behaviours, often driven by the need for food and suitable breeding grounds.

  • Caribou: Also known as reindeer in Europe, Caribou undertake one of the longest terrestrial migrations. They travel up to 4 800 kms (3,000 miles) annually across the Arctic tundra, moving between their winter feeding grounds in the boreal forests and their summer calving grounds in the tundra. This migration is critical for their survival, as it allows them to exploit seasonal food sources and avoid harsh weather conditions.
  • Humpback Whale: These majestic marine mammals migrate from their feeding grounds in polar regions to tropical waters where they breed and give birth. Humpback Whales can travel up to 8 00 kms (5,000 miles) one way during their migration.

Fish migrations are often linked to breeding and spawning activities, with some species travelling extraordinary distances.

  • Chinook Salmon: Known for their remarkable upstream migration, Chinook Salmon travel from the ocean to freshwater streams and rivers to spawn. They navigate hundreds of miles, overcoming obstacles like rapids and dams. This journey is a critical part of their life cycle, ensuring that their offspring hatch in nutrient-rich freshwater environments.
  • European Eel: European Eels migrate from European rivers to the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic Ocean to spawn. This journey covers thousands of miles, with eels navigating through a complex mix of saltwater and freshwater environments. After spawning, the adult eels die, and the larvae make the return journey to Europe, where they mature.

Insect migrations, though less known, are equally impressive and vital for ecosystem health.

  • Monarch Butterfly: The Monarch Butterfly’s migration is a multi-generational journey that spans thousands of miles. Each year, millions of Monarchs travel from North America to central Mexico, where they overwinter in specific forested areas. This migration involves up to four generations of butterflies, each contributing to different legs of the journey.
  • Globe Skimmer Dragonfly: This tiny insect undertakes one of the longest migrations of any insect, travelling over 11,000 miles across the Indian Ocean from India to Africa and back. The Globe Skimmer Dragonfly relies on wind patterns and possibly the Earth’s magnetic fields to navigate this incredible journey, which involves multiple generations.

Impact of Migration on Ecosystems

Migration plays a crucial role in maintaining the health and balance of ecosystems. The movements of migratory species influence nutrient distribution, predator-prey dynamics, and plant reproduction, creating a web of interconnected benefits that sustain biodiversity.

Nutrient Distribution

Migratory animals contribute significantly to nutrient cycling across different ecosystems. For example, salmon migration brings marine nutrients upstream to freshwater environments. When salmon spawn and die, their decomposing bodies release nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus into the water, enriching the soil and supporting the growth of aquatic plants. This nutrient influx benefits a wide range of organisms, from microorganisms to larger predators like bears and birds.

  • Salmon: Their spawning migration not only sustains their population but also nourishes riparian ecosystems. Trees and plants near salmon spawning streams grow more vigorously due to the nutrient-rich environment, demonstrating the far-reaching impact of these fish.
Predator-Prey Dynamics

Migration influences predator-prey relationships by causing fluctuations in population densities. Predators often follow their migratory prey, leading to dynamic interactions that shape ecosystem structures. For example, the Serengeti’s wildebeest migration supports a diverse array of predators, including lions, hyenas, and crocodiles, which rely on the predictable abundance of prey.

  • Wildebeest: The mass movement of wildebeest across the Serengeti not only supports predators but also impacts other herbivores and plant communities. The grazing patterns of wildebeest influence the growth and distribution of grasses, which in turn affects the habitat and food availability for other species.
Plant Pollination and Seed Dispersal

Migratory species play vital roles in plant reproduction by pollinating flowers and dispersing seeds over long distances. This interaction helps maintain genetic diversity and plant population resilience.

  • Monarch Butterflies: As they migrate, Monarch Butterflies pollinate various plants, contributing to the health of ecosystems across their range. Their movement ensures cross-pollination between distant plant populations, fostering genetic diversity and ecological stability.
  • Bats: Many bat species are important pollinators and seed dispersers. The Mexican Free-tailed Bat, for example, migrates between Mexico and the United States, pollinating plants like agave and dispersing seeds of fruits, aiding in the regeneration of forests and other habitats.
Ecosystem Health and Biodiversity

The presence and activities of migratory species enhance ecosystem resilience and biodiversity. By connecting different habitats, migratory animals facilitate gene flow between populations, increasing genetic diversity and adaptability. This connectivity helps ecosystems recover from disturbances and adapt to environmental changes.

  • Humpback Whales: Their migration contributes to marine biodiversity by transporting nutrients vertically through the water column. When they feed in deep waters and defecate near the surface, they fertilise phytoplankton, the foundation of marine food webs. This nutrient cycling supports a rich diversity of marine life.
Cultural and Economic Impacts

Migration also has significant cultural and economic implications for human societies. Many cultures have traditions and livelihoods linked to migratory species, from indigenous hunting practices to eco-tourism industries.

  • Bird Watching: Migratory birds attract bird watchers from around the world, contributing to local economies through tourism. Festivals and events celebrating bird migrations raise awareness about conservation and the importance of protecting migratory routes.

Challenges to Migration

Migration is a vital behaviour for many species, but it is fraught with challenges. These challenges often stem from human activities and environmental changes, threatening the survival of migratory species and the health of ecosystems. Understanding these obstacles is crucial for developing effective conservation strategies.

Habitat Destruction

One of the most significant threats to migratory species is habitat destruction. Urbanisation, agriculture, and deforestation can fragment and degrade the habitats that animals rely on during their migratory journeys.

  • Deforestation: The loss of forests in the Amazon Basin affects numerous migratory bird species. These birds depend on the forest for food and shelter during their long journeys. As trees are cleared for agriculture and development, birds lose critical stopover sites, impacting their survival and breeding success.
  • Wetland Drainage: Wetlands serve as crucial stopover points for many migratory birds, such as the Sandhill Crane. The drainage of wetlands for agriculture and urban development removes these vital resting and feeding areas, making long migrations even more arduous and risky.
Human Interference

Human activities create numerous barriers and hazards for migratory species.

  • Roads and Infrastructure: Roads, dams, and other structures can block migratory routes. For example, the construction of dams on rivers obstructs the migration of fish like the Chinook Salmon, preventing them from reaching their spawning grounds. Fish ladders and other mitigation measures can help, but they are not always effective.
  • Light Pollution: Artificial lights from cities can disorient nocturnal migrants such as birds and sea turtles. Bright lights can cause birds to collide with buildings or exhaust themselves by flying in circles. Sea turtle hatchlings, which rely on natural light cues to find the ocean, can become disoriented by beachfront lighting and fail to reach the sea.

Overfishing and hunting can deplete populations of migratory species, making it harder for them to complete their journeys.

  • Overfishing: The over-harvesting of fish species such as the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna has reduced their populations drastically. These fish migrate long distances across the Atlantic Ocean, and declining numbers can disrupt their ecological roles and the marine food web.
  • Hunting: Migratory birds like the Amur Falcon face threats from illegal hunting along their migratory routes. In some regions, thousands of these birds are captured and killed, significantly impacting their populations.

Pollution from various sources can degrade habitats and harm migratory species directly.

  • Plastic Pollution: Marine species such as the Leatherback Sea Turtle often mistake plastic debris for jellyfish, their primary food source. Ingesting plastic can lead to malnutrition, intestinal blockage, and death, threatening the survival of these long-distance migrants.
  • Chemical Pollutants: Pesticides and other chemicals can accumulate in the bodies of migratory species, leading to poisoning and reproductive failure. Birds that feed in agricultural areas may ingest harmful chemicals, which can affect their health and the viability of their eggs.

Conservation Efforts

Conserving migratory species and their habitats is a complex and urgent task that involves global cooperation and innovative strategies. Here are some of the key efforts aimed at protecting migratory animals and ensuring their survival.

Protected Areas

Establishing and maintaining protected areas is one of the most effective ways to conserve migratory species.

  • Migration Corridors: Protected migration corridors are essential for species that travel long distances. The Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative aims to create a continuous corridor for wildlife, including migratory species like grizzly bears and wolves. By protecting and connecting habitats across international borders, this initiative helps ensure safe passage for these animals.
  • Marine Protected Areas: Marine protected areas (MPAs) safeguard critical habitats for migratory marine species. The Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the Pacific Ocean protects important breeding and feeding grounds for species such as the Hawaiian Monk Seal and the Green Sea Turtle, offering them a safe haven from human disturbances and environmental changes.
Research and Monitoring

Scientific research and monitoring are crucial for understanding migratory patterns and developing effective conservation strategies.

  • Satellite Tracking: Advances in technology, such as satellite tracking, allow scientists to monitor the movements of migratory species in real time. This technology has been used to track the migration of the Arctic Tern, revealing their incredible journey from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Such data helps identify key stopover sites and threats along their routes.
  • Citizen Science: Involving the public in monitoring efforts can greatly enhance data collection. Programs like eBird enable bird watchers worldwide to contribute observations, providing valuable information on bird migration patterns and population trends. This collaborative approach helps scientists and conservationists track changes over time and make informed decisions.
Community Involvement

Engaging local communities in conservation efforts is essential for the success of migratory species protection.

  • Education and Outreach: Educating communities about the importance of migratory species and their role in ecosystems can foster a sense of stewardship. Programs like the International Crane Foundation’s outreach in Asia involve local communities in the conservation of migratory cranes, promoting sustainable practices and raising awareness about the threats these birds face.
  • Sustainable Practices: Encouraging sustainable practices among communities that interact with migratory species can reduce human-wildlife conflicts. For example, initiatives that promote sustainable fishing practices help protect migratory fish like the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna, ensuring that local communities can continue to benefit from these resources without depleting them.
International Agreements

Global cooperation is vital for the conservation of migratory species, which often cross multiple national borders.

  • Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS): Also known as the Bonn Convention, the CMS is an international treaty aimed at conserving migratory species and their habitats. It provides a framework for countries to collaborate on conservation efforts, such as protecting key habitats and reducing threats like hunting and habitat destruction.
  • Ramsar Convention: The Ramsar Convention focuses on the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands, which are critical stopover sites for many migratory birds. By designating wetlands of international importance, the convention helps protect these vital habitats and supports the conservation of the species that rely on them.
Habitat Restoration

Restoring degraded habitats is essential for providing safe and suitable environments for migratory species.

  • Wetland Restoration: Projects aimed at restoring wetlands benefit a wide range of migratory birds. For example, the restoration of the Everglades in Florida has helped improve conditions for wading birds like the Roseate Spoonbill, which relies on these habitats for feeding during migration.
  • Forest Regeneration: Reforestation and habitat regeneration efforts can create new stopover and breeding sites for migratory species. The Atlantic Forest Restoration Pact in Brazil aims to restore large areas of the Atlantic Forest, providing critical habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife.