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Migratory behaviors are shaped by experience

A recent study led by the University of Wyoming has found that migratory animals refine their navigational strategies as they age, indicating that learning from experience plays a crucial role in successful migration. According to the experts, although genetics and social learning significantly influence migratory behaviors, knowledge gained through experience also contributes to shaping these journeys.

Ellen Aikens, who led this research with a joint appointment at UW’s Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources and UW’s School of Computing, explores the intersection of animal behavior and data science, an investigation made possible by the advancements in computing and data analytics.

Understanding migratory behaviors

This study marks a significant advancement in understanding migratory behaviors. Working with specialists from the University of Konstanz, the research meticulously tracked over 250 white storks from five breeding sites in southern Germany and Austria from 2013 to 2020 through advanced tracking technology.

This detailed tracking not only identified the storks’ migratory paths but also assessed their travel timing, speed, and energy consumption during flight. 

Migratory behaviors become more focused

The findings revealed a notable transition: while younger storks displayed curiosity in exploring new territories during their migration, as they aged, their journeys became more focused, favoring faster and more direct routes that necessitated greater energy expenditure.

“As the birds age and gain more experience, older individuals stop exploring new places and instead move more quickly and directly, resulting in greater energy expenditure during migratory flight,” said Aikens. “During spring migration, individuals innovated novel shortcuts during the transition from early life into adulthood, suggesting a reliance on spatial memory acquired through learning.”

Learning from experience

“Although information has largely been overlooked as a currency shaping migratory behavior, gaining information and using it to incrementally refine migration behavior through learning could play an important role in saving both energy and time,” the authors explained. “The landscapes that animals move through are complex and dynamic, requiring that migrants learn where and when favorable conditions that facilitate movement occur and how to exploit them efficiently.”

While the scientists acknowledge the importance of genetics and cultural inherited mechanisms in animal migration, they argue that the recent findings point to individual experience as another major factor. 

“Whether the first migration is guided by genetics or results from following informed individuals, learning within a lifetime represents an additional and complementary mechanism shaping animal migration,” they concluded.

Fascinating migratory behaviors 

Migratory behaviors in animals are diverse and fascinating, often driven by the search for food, mating opportunities, or more hospitable climates. Here are a few examples of remarkable migratory behaviors across different species:

Monarch butterflies

Perhaps one of the most visually stunning migrations, North American monarch butterflies travel up to 3,000 miles from the northeastern United States and Canada to the fir forests of central Mexico for the winter. 

This journey is not only long but also remarkable because the butterflies that return to Mexico in the fall are the great-grandchildren of the ones that left the previous spring, navigating using a combination of circadian rhythms and the position of the sun.

Arctic terns

Holding the record for the longest migration of any animal, Arctic terns migrate from their Arctic breeding grounds to the Antarctic and back each year, covering a distance of about 71,000 kilometers (44,000 miles). This round trip ensures they experience two summers per year and more daylight than any other creature on the planet.


In East Africa, over 1.5 million wildebeest, along with hundreds of thousands of zebra and gazelle, embark on a circular migration of over 1,800 miles through the Serengeti and Maasai Mara ecosystems. This migration is driven by the seasonal rains and the quest for fresh grazing and water. It’s known for its dramatic river crossings and predator-prey interactions.

Humpback whales

Humpback whales undertake extensive migrations between feeding and breeding grounds. They feed in polar waters during the summer months and migrate to warmer tropical and subtropical waters during the winter for breeding and giving birth, traveling thousands of miles each year. 

Their songs, complex sequences of moans, howls, cries, and other noises, are thought to play a role in communication and mating behaviors during these migrations.

Great white sharks

Some great white sharks have been documented traveling from the coast of South Africa to Australia and back, a round trip of over 20,000 kilometers (12,427 miles), in a single year.

These migrations are likely motivated by hunting and possibly breeding, showcasing the sharks’ incredible navigation skills across vast ocean distances.

Caribou migration

In the Arctic, caribou (reindeer in Eurasia) undertake one of the largest land migrations, with some herds traveling up to 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles) annually. This migration is primarily driven by the search for food, with the herds moving between their winter and summer feeding grounds.

These migrations are critical for the survival of these species, allowing them to exploit seasonal resources, avoid harsh weather conditions, and reproduce. They also play significant roles in the ecological systems, affecting predator-prey relationships, seed dispersal, and nutrient cycling.

The UW study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


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