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Journeying through the wild: Nature’s most spectacular animal migrations

Explore some of the animal kingdom's most extraordinary migration stories, from Africa's expansive savannahs to the Arctic's icy waters, where the gentle flutter of monarch butterflies and the haunting calls of Arctic terns echo the planet's seasonal rhythms

In the vast expanse of the natural world, few phenomena rival the epic migrations undertaken by millions of animals annually. Driven by primal instincts and the need to secure food, shelter and breeding grounds, these animals defy the limits of endurance as they traverse thousands of miles by land, sea or air in their quest for sustenance and survival.

From the sweeping plains of Africa to the remote reaches of Antarctica, the animal kingdom pulses with restless energy, aligning with the rhythms of the seasons as creatures, both large and small, embark on extraordinary journeys spanning continents and oceans.

The great migration

Regarded as one of the world’s greatest spectacles of land mammal migration, Africa’s annual wildebeest trek is one of the few remaining intact wildlife migrations on the planet. The thunderous echo of thousands of hooves pounding across the vast savannahs, traversing the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem spanning Tanzania and Kenya, marks the commencement of an awe-inspiring journey covering nearly 2,000 kilometres across the eastern expanse of the African continent.

Following the birthing season on Tanzania’s Serengeti, over a million wildebeest, accompanied by zebras and gazelles, venture forth in spring in search of verdant pastures on a journey that extends well into the summer months. Amidst this migration, the most riveting sight unfolds at the Grumeti River crossing, which poses one of the herd's most formidable challenges, as lurking beneath the surface are Nile crocodiles. Nevertheless, unified in their quest and recognising the safety in numbers, the wildebeest and zebras assemble into a colossal herd, bravely navigating the treacherous currents to reach the lush grasslands of Kenya's Masai Mara.

The monarch butterfly trail

While the monarch butterfly can be found around the globe, it is the North American population that is known for its remarkable multigenerational migratory behaviour. Embarking on an awe-inspiring journey spanning over 4,800 kilometres, these delicate creatures fly from the frost-kissed forests of Canada to the sun-drenched mountains of central Mexico.

Against the backdrop of changing seasons, the monarchs depart their northern habitats, braving wind and weather as they navigate towards their southern sanctuaries amidst the oyamel fir forests nestled near the Sierra Madre mountains, where they converge in vast roosts to endure the winter months. With the onset of spring, the monarchs initiate their northward journey once again.

The monarch population cycles through life stages across three to five generations to complete their migratory circuit. Along the path, females lay eggs on milkweed plants, providing essential sustenance for the emerging caterpillars. These offspring then set out to continue this journey, tracing the path forged by their ancestors.

The flight of the flamingo

Against the backdrop of Dubai's towering urban skyline, the flurry of pink feathers in the shimmering wetlands of Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary makes for a stunning sight. Every winter, the greater flamingo trades the snow-filled landscapes of its breeding grounds in Europe and Central Asia for the balmy temperatures of the UAE, flying anywhere from 1,200 to 8,500 kilometres to get here.

Although most of the birds venture further westward towards their final migratory destinations along the shores of the Red Sea or East Africa, a portion of these creatures choose to extend their stay in the emirates well into the summer months. While some flamingos flock to Dubai's Al Qudra lakes, others seek sanctuary in Abu Dhabi's Al Wathba Wetland Reserve or the Bul Syayeef Marine Protected Area.

The polar migration of the Arctic tern

Flying pole to pole every year, Arctic terns demonstrate mastery of long-distance travel, undertaking one of the most extensive migrations of any bird species. With wings that span impressive distances, these remarkable birds navigate the globe, travelling from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back again.

This arduous journey from the ends of the earth sees the Arctic tern spending most of the year — and most of its life — at sea, in pursuit of a never-ending summer. As the extremely cold and dark winter approaches in their Arctic breeding grounds, the terns embark on their southward journey to the Antarctic, where summer is just beginning.

The Arctic tern's migration route is not a direct path from pole to pole; rather, it weaves and meanders, making its yearly journey even longer than the approximate 30,000-kilometre distance from the Arctic Circle to the Antarctic Circle. In 2016, a tagged Arctic tern shattered the record for the longest known bird migration, covering nearly 96,000 kilometres from its breeding grounds on an island off the coast of England to Antarctica, and then back again.

The march of the red crabs

The rainforest floor of Christmas Island, situated 1,500 kilometres from the Australian mainland, is home to more than 120 million red crabs, who typically reside in dirt burrows or deep rock crevices throughout the year. However, the onset of the wet season brings about a remarkable phenomenon as the first substantial rain propels the adult red crabs out of the safety of their forest dwellings and onto a frantic dash towards the coast.

Upon reaching the ocean's edge, adult female crabs release their eggs into the sea, temporarily darkening the waters. Once hatched, the young crabs transform the coastline into a striking display, with vibrant red hues contrasting against the lush emerald green of the surrounding vegetation. Shortly after arriving on the shoreline, the baby crabs undergo a moulting process, shedding their sea-bound identity to emerge as miniature versions of their adult form. They then begin their ascent into the jungle, marking the beginning of their life journey.

The humpback whale migration

With its barrel-shaped body reaching lengths of up to 50 feet and pectoral fins extending like oversized wings, the humpback whale is not built for speed. Yet, this marine giant is known for its remarkable migratory journeys between warm-water breeding grounds in the winter and cold-water feeding grounds during the summer.

Humpback whales undertake one of the longest migrations of any mammal, with the northern hemisphere population swimming from the icy fjords of Alaska to the balmy waters of Hawaii. Against the backdrop of towering mountains and turquoise seas, these majestic creatures breach and dive, covering nearly 26,000 kilometres annually. Their southern counterparts feed off the coast of Antarctica and migrate to the tropical waters off Costa Rica during the winter months for breeding and nurturing their young.

During their journeys, these giants travel at a leisurely pace, averaging speeds as slow as four to eight kilometres per hour. However, their endurance is astounding as they maintain this steady pace day and night, covering average distances of 160 kilometres in a single day and completing their lengthy migrations in a month or two.


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