The greatest migrations on earth are spectacular sites. Witnessing wildlife embarking on its biggest journey is one of the best experiences we can have as humans. But what are the greatest migrations on earth and why do these occur? Read on to find out…
The greatest migrations on earth
Wildlife is absolutely fascinating – the different species that make up our planet have so many things in common but also so many things that make every single one unique in some way. One amazing part of tourism is wildlife tourism; any tourist activity which is directed at the observation and interaction with animals, particularly in their natural habitat. Today we’ll be looking at wildlife in the form of the 10 greatest migrations on Earth!
What does migration mean?
Before we look at the 10 greatest migrations on Earth, what is migration? When we talk about migration in this context, we are talking about the movement of animals from one place to another. According to the National Geographic, ‘migration is a pattern of behaviour in which animals travel from one habitat to another in search of food, better conditions, or reproductive needs. There are two important factors that make migration different from other types of animal movement: First, migration happens seasonally, and second, migration involves a return journey.
This makes it different from emigration, when animals travel to find a new, permanent place to live. Many animal species migrate, including species of fish, crustaceans, amphibians, reptiles, insects, and mammals. These animals might journey by land, sea, or air to reach their destination, often crossing vast distances and in large numbers’.
Animals migrate for various reasons – to find food, to find a mate so they can reproduce, or for temperature reasons. Below you can find out more about the 10 greatest migrations on Earth, and some fascinating facts about the creatures involved…
#1 Migration of penguins in Antarctica
If you’ve seen the hit film March of the Penguins (2005), you know a little bit about penguin migration already – and it is one of the 10 greatest migrations on Earth. Penguin migration involves thousands of emperor penguins heading inland from the Antarctic coast while the sea ice is thawing, in order to both hunt for food and lay their eggs. It is a long process, a very lengthy trek, but one that is so breathtaking to witness at any stage.
The penguins are so regimented in their movement, but their cheeky nature ensures they have some fun along the way too! And of course at the end of it all there are thousands of baby penguins (chicks) hatching and ready to start their incredible life – and long journey back to the ocean!
If you want to see this amazing migration for yourself, the best time is probably around November-December, as this is when the babies are starting to head back to the ocean for the first time – this is considered springtime in Antarctica. The migration starts earlier, but seeing the chicks is one of the biggest highlights. The best way to witness this particular migration is one a polar expedition, accompanied by polar experts who know exactly what they’re doing and how to do so safely and responsibly.
Facts about penguin migration
- Emperor penguins typically live to be around 15-20 years old
- They eat krill, squid and fish
- Emperor penguins are the most ice-adapted penguins
- They head up to 56 miles inland during migration
- Penguin migration generally takes around 69 days
#2 Migration of whale sharks in Mexico
Another of the top 10 greatest migrations on Earth is whale sharks in Mexico – particularly the Yucatan Peninsula. This summer migration starts just off the coast of Holbox Island, and the sharks travel around 6,000km to the stunning Yucatan Peninsula, known for its cenotes and Mayan ruins. Whale sharks migrate in order to feed – they chow down on krill, plankton and other small species of fish here, and are known to return year after year to get their fill.
If you want to see the sharks migrate here, head to the Yucatan Peninsula in summer; July and August are the months with the highest number of whale sharks visiting, up to 800 at a time. You can swim and dive with these gentle giants, which grow to roughly the size of a bus…
Facts about whale shark migration
- Scientists have seen the same sharks returning 6 years in a row
- It is thought to be mostly males who migrate to the Yucatan Peninsula, with females heading into the middle of the ocean to give birth
- Whale sharks migrate at a speed of around 3 miles per hour
#3 Migration of the great wildebeest in Africa
One of the most famous of the 10 greatest migrations on Earth is the great wildebeest migration – this is one you most likely will have heard of already! It includes over two million animals – wildebeest as well as zebras and antelope – who migrate for temperature/climate reasons. They take off from the breathtaking Serengeti National Park, located in Tanzania, and head to the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya in order to find greener land. It is a circular migration, and one which also results in the bird of around half a million wildebeest calves during mating season. There are a lot of predators out there, too, and it is often a very dramatic sight to behold.
If you wanted to see this for yourself on safari, visiting at some point between July and October would be best – you’d see thousands of animals crossing the Great Mara River, having to strategically avoid the crocodiles which lie in wait for them! It is one of the best things on the planet to witness.
Facts about the wildebeest migration
- The 9 month journey from A to B covers 1,800 miles
- The animals can stay in one place along the route for up to 4 weeks at a time
- It is the largest overland migration in the world
#4 Migration of polar bears in Canada
From August onwards, thousands of polar bears gather in the Churchill area in Manitoba (sometimes referred to as the Polar Bear Capital of the World). This is the culmination of their 3-4 month move, as the ice at Hudson Bay melts throughout the summer; during the time spent on land, polar bears survive on the fat reserves they’ve built up during the rest of the year. It is also known as a time for ‘maternity denning’, so there are plenty of new cubs born during this time.
By the end of November, polar bears start heading back to the bay thanks to the ‘big freeze’ – the ice is back and they can head home to find seals to prey on. This really is one of the 10 greatest migrations on Earth, especially for the lucky Canadians who get to see it every year.
If you want to see polar bears in Churchill, any time from late August until mid-November will pretty much guarantee you the chance to witness these majestic creatures in the wild; Churchill is a small place but it welcomes plenty of tourists, and guides will be happy to take you out in what is known as a tundra buggy.
Facts about polar bear migration
- Climate change is impacting the number of polar bears in the wild
- They lose around 1 kilogram of fat per day during migration
- Their migration is also sometimes known as ‘walking hibernation’
#5 Migration of zebra in Botswana
Every year, thousands of zebras travel around 1000 km across Botswana along a pretty straight path back and forth; they start in the floodplains of the Chobe River during the dry season of July-November, reaching Nxai Pan National Park and its grasslands in the wet season of December-February. From Chobe to Nxai Pan is around 250 km and can take up to 30 days; the zebras tend to stay here for around 80 days before heading back to the Chobe area, in a less direct route which ends up being up to 800 km and taking around 3 months.
If you want to see this migration for yourself, a Botswana safari in March-October is the best time to do it.
Facts about zebra migration
- This is the longest *land* migration in Africa
- The migration was discovered by accident thanks to GPS tracking
- It is thought to be key to the survival of the species
#6 Migration of elephants in Sri Lanka
During Sri Lanka’s dry season, around 300 elephants flock to the Minneriya National Park – also known as a gathering, these majestic creatures head to the water source to socialise, play, drink, eat and mate. It is especially important for them as with it being the dry season, there are very few natural water sources available in the area for them to stay hydrated and sustained. This migration has been going on for centuries, and is incredible to see – truly one of the 10 greatest migrations on Earth, even if some don’t look at is as a typical migration!
If you want to witness the gathering for yourself, the best time is during June and September – booking a safari is the best way to do it and you won’t be disappointed.
Facts about elephant migration
- The Minneriya Reservoir is man-mad
- There are other animals to see here such as deer, macaques and monkeys
- The elephants head back to their respective ‘home’ areas when the wet season returns
#7 Migration of fruit bats in Zambia
The African continent is home to many of the 10 greatest migrations, and this is no exception – fruit bats migrate in order to find food, and around 10 million of them head from the rainforest in the Democratic Republic of Congo to the swampy area of the Kasanka National Park in beautiful Zambia. It’s around a 2,000 km journey and takes around 90 days in the latter part of the year – again, it’s something really magical to be able to witness!
If you want to see this particular migration, consider a trip to Zambia in between late October and mid-December; a safari experience is the best way to see the fruit bats on their incredible journey.
Facts about fruit bat migration
- This is one of the furthest recorded migrations on Earth
- The bats will eat up to twice their body weight every night upon arriving in Zambia
- The bats also act as pollinators during this migration
#8 Migration of reindeer in Siberia
Another of the 10 greatest migrations on Earth is that of the Nenet people and their herds of reindeer; they reside on the Yamal Peninsula, and the journey takes them 1,000 km from the reindeer’s summer dwelling, in the north, to where they’ll stay during the winter – south of the Arctic Circle. The journey is incredibly difficult and tiring, starting at Salekhard (the only city at the Polar Circle) and crossing the frozen Gulf of the Ob River, right to the pretty village of Yale-Sar. Then it’s onwards again to the Arctic Circle itself.
If you want to see this for yourself, make the epic journey to Yale-Sar in March/April when you’ll be able to see the Nenet tribe and their reindeer – you may also get to see (and take part in!) the annual Reindeer Herding Festival with plenty of fascinating traditions and fun sporting activities.
Facts about the Nenet migration
- This is one of the only migrations that combines both animals and humans
- They migrate in this way so the reindeer do not over-graze the land
- Temperatures get as low as -50 celsius
#9 Migration of monarch butterflies in Mexico and California
Canada and North America are too cold for monarch butterflies in the winter, so these beautiful little creatures take off to Mexico and some southern areas of California in order to keep warm. It’s one of the 10 greatest migrations on Earth because they’re currently the only insects known to be able to make this journey every year – and can you imagine witnessing so many pretty butterflies fluttering for 3,000 miles to settle down somewhere new? There is a butterfly sanctuary in Mexico, which is where most head to, and it’s definitely something which will leave you in awe!
If you want to see monarch butterflies in Mexico, visit the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Michoacan in January or February – this is when the butterfly population here is at its highest!
Fascinating facts about butterfly migration
- Butterflies who are born just before this journey can live up to 7 months
- They make use of air currents to make the migration
#1- Migration of desert elephants in Mali
This is another case of elephants migrating in order to reach a water source – they generally live just south-eart of Timbuktu, and they make the 300-mile journey every year to reach Lake Débo. The group is a couple of hundred strong, so it’s quite a small migration; nevertheless, it is quite amazing to watch as they travel around 35 miles each day across the dry Sahara Desert. While there aren’t many other animals for them to contend with, sandstorms and water shortages (not to mention the extreme temperatures!) can cause more than enough trouble for these giant beauties…
To see this particular elephant migration for yourself, book a safari in Mali between February and May.
Facts about the Mali elephant migration
- This is the furthest any elephants migrate
- Their biggest threat en-route is poachers
- It is all in pursuit of water
The greatest migrations on earth- FAQs
Lets finish up this article by answering some of the most common questions about the greatest migrations on earth.
What is the greatest migration on Earth?
The greatest migration on Earth is the annual migration of the wildebeest in the Serengeti ecosystem in East Africa.
How many wildebeest migrate during the annual migration in the Serengeti?
It is estimated that around 1.5 million wildebeest, along with thousands of zebras and gazelles, migrate during the annual migration in the Serengeti.
When does the annual migration of the wildebeest in the Serengeti take place?
The annual migration of the wildebeest in the Serengeti takes place between June and August.
What other animals migrate in the Serengeti besides the wildebeest?
Besides the wildebeest, thousands of zebras and gazelles also migrate in the Serengeti.
What is the longest animal migration in the world?
The longest animal migration in the world is the migration of the Arctic Tern, which travels over 44,000 miles each year from its breeding grounds in the Arctic to its wintering grounds in the Antarctic.
What is the largest animal migration in the world?
The largest animal migration in the world is the migration of the Christmas Island red crab, with an estimated 50-60 million crabs migrating each year.
What is the most dangerous animal migration in the world?
The most dangerous animal migration in the world is the migration of the caribou in Canada, where they must cross rivers and lakes that are filled with predators like wolves and grizzly bears.
What is the purpose of animal migrations?
Animal migrations serve several purposes, including finding food, avoiding harsh weather conditions, breeding, and finding better habitats.
How do animals navigate during migration?
Animals use a variety of methods to navigate during migration, including the position of the sun and stars, magnetic fields, and their sense of smell.
How do human activities affect animal migrations?
Human activities such as habitat destruction, pollution, and climate change can disrupt the greatest migrations on earth by altering food sources, habitats, and weather patterns.
The greatest migrations on earth: To conclude
The greatest migrations on earth are absolutely incredible and very fascinating! Whether you plan to travel to a destination that experiences one of the greatest migrations on earth, or you are simply interested to learn more, I hope that this article about the greatest migrations on earth has been helpful!
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