migration of animals

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

migration of animals

migration of animals, movements of animals in large numbers from one place to another. In modern usage the term is usually restricted to regular, periodic movements of populations away from and back to their place of origin. A single round trip may take the entire lifetime of an individual, as with the Pacific salmon; or an individual may make the same trip repeatedly, as with many of the migratory birds and mammals. The animals may travel in groups along well-defined routes; or individuals may travel separately, congregating for breeding and then spreading out over a wide feeding area, as do some of the seals.

Types of Migration

Seasonal migrations occur in many species of insects, birds, marine mammals, and large herbivorous mammals. These migrations often provide the animals with more favorable conditions of temperature, food, or water. Many birds and a few bats of cold and temperate regions migrate to warmer areas during the winter. Herbivores of cold regions, such as wapiti (elk), caribou, and moose, have summer and winter ranges; many herbivores of warm regions, such as the African antelopes, migrate seasonally to avoid drought. These migrations may involve a change of latitude, of altitude, or both.

In many cases the chief function of seasonal migration is to provide a suitable place for reproduction, which may not be the place most suitable for the feeding and other daily activities of adults. Hundreds of thousands of gnus (wildebeests) of E Africa take part in annual migrations to calving grounds. Many fishes migrate to spawning grounds, and in some cases this involves a change from saltwater to freshwater (e.g., salmon) or vice versa (e.g., freshwater eels). Sea turtles, seals, and many sea birds come ashore to breed, and most amphibians gather near water at the breeding season. Fur seals and many whales make ocean voyages of thousands of miles to their breeding grounds, the former coming ashore on islands. Such migration is seriously affected by the increasing rate of destruction of natural habitats.

The term emigration refers to irregular movements out of an area, with no return. When such emigration is the result of sudden, explosive population increase, it is called an irruption. Irruptions are common among small rodents, notably lemmings, and various species of birds and insects. The mass movements of the so-called migratory locusts of N Africa (Locusta) and North America (Melanoplus) are actually irruptions; however, the N African desert locust (Schistocerca) makes true migrations between its winter and summer breeding grounds.

Another type of one-way travel is the regular dispersal of the young of most species. The simplest type of regular migration is the diurnal movement of some marine microorganisms from one depth to another in response to light changes. Certain marine invertebrates, such as the palolo worm (see Annelida), have a monthly migration pattern influenced by the phases of the moon.

Initiation of Migration

Various factors determine the initiation of migration. In some cases external pressures—temperature, drought, food shortage—alone may cause the animals to seek better conditions. For example, most of the mule deer of Yellowstone Park, Wyo., migrate between summer and winter pastures, but those living near hot springs, where grazing is available all year, do not. In many species migration is initiated by a combination of physiological and external stimuli. In birds the migratory instinct is related to the cycle of enlargement of the reproductive organs in spring and their reduction in fall. Experiments have shown that variation in day length is the chief external stimulus for this cycle: light received by the eye affects production of a hormone by the anterior pituitary gland, which stimulates growth of the reproductive organs.

Orientation and Navigation

Much work has been done on orientation and navigation in migrating animals, although the subject is still not well understood. Studies of salmon indicate that they depend on the olfactory sense to locate and return to their stream of origin. Herbivorous mammals often follow well-established trails and probably also use their sense of smell. Bats, whales, and seals use echolocation to navigate in the dark or underwater; in addition, some whales appear to take visual bearings on objects on the shore in their migrations.

Migratory birds are believed to use the stars, sun, and geographic features as guides. The probability that stellar navigation is used has been strengthened by experiments in planetariums indicating that birds navigate at least in part by the stars. Night-migrating birds are sometimes disoriented in prolonged heavy fog. Day-flying birds navigate by the sun and also make some use of geographic features, particularly of shorelines. Many birds also have the ability to orient themselves to the earth's magnetic fields and this appears to contribute to their ability to navigate, but the mechanisms by which this happens are not well understood. Most migratory birds travel within broad north-south air routes known as flyways. There are four major flyways in North America, called the Pacific, central, Mississippi, and Atlantic flyways. The space within the flyway used by a particular group of birds is called a corridor. Bird migration is not always in a north-south direction. Many European birds migrate in an east-west direction, wintering in the more temperate British Isles, and many mountain-dwelling birds descend to lower altitudes in winter. The breeding grounds of a bird species are regarded as its home territory. Some migratory birds winter only a few hundred miles from their breeding grounds, while others migrate between the cold or temperate zones of the two hemispheres. The longest journey is made by the arctic tern, which alternates between the Arctic and the Antarctic.

The monarch butterfly has a north-south migration pattern that resembles that of many birds. One monarch population that inhabits northeastern and midwestern North America averages c.12 mph (19 kph) as it heads for the winter to Mexico's Sierra Madre mountains. Monarchs start the return trip in the spring, but they breed along the way and then die; the new generation completes the journey. Studies suggest that monarchs are able to use both the sun and the direction of the earth's magnetic field to navigate.

Tools for Studying Migration

The movements of migrating animals are often studied by tagging individuals. Bird banding has been carried on extensively since the 1920s; more recently there has been tagging of fishes, butterflies, and marine mammals. Use is now made of radar, sonar, and radio for following migrations, particularly those of marine animals. Radio transmitters attached to whales or seals emit signals that can be picked up by weather satellites at regular intervals.


See R. R. Baher, The Evolutionary Ecology of Animal Migration (1978); D. J. Aidley, Animal Migration (1981).

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