The Longest, Most Incredible Migrations In The Animal Kingdom

Even though animals don’t have a map or GPS, many of them manage to travel thousands of miles along the same path every year. Some insects, mammals, fish, and even plankton migrate based on the moon, weather, magnetic field, or memory. Many of them manage to travel much farther than most humans can.

Some birds fly from north to south poles, while a species of shark can swim for 100 days without eating. One microscopic animal swims thousands of feet every day. Learn about the most fascinating and impressive animal migrations in the world.

Arctic Terns Literally Circle The Globe

An Arctic Tern is hovering over the nesting colony in southeast Iceland
Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images
Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

A 15-inch-long (30 cm) bird journeys farther than any other animal in the world. Every year, arctic terns fly from the Arctic Circle to Antarctica and back again: over 44,000 miles (71000 km) round-trip. Since they fly from summer in the Northern Hemisphere to summer in the Southern Hemisphere, they see more daylight than any other creature on Earth.

Researchers have noted that arctic terns live for around 30 years, meaning that they fly over 1.5 million miles (2.4 million km) throughout their lifetime. That’s equal to three round-trips to the moon.

Monarch Butterflies Migrate For Most Of Their Lives

Thousands of monarch butterflies cluster on eucalyptus tree limbs at Ardenwood Historic Farm in Fremont, California
Yichuan Cao/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Yichuan Cao/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In the fall, millions of monarch butterflies leave their breeding homes in Canada and the United States to fly to southern Mexico. Unlike other species, they fly over 3,000 miles (4800 km) and never return. They spend most of their lives on this journey–flapping their wings for 2-3 months in their six-week life span.

Since monarch butterflies can’t handle colder temperatures, they all fly south to the tropical mountains. According to Sarina Jepsen, director of the Xerces Society for endangered species, these butterflies may go through five generations in traveling back to Canada.

Adélie Penguins Chase The Sun

A group of Adelie penguins jumping from ice pebble to ice pebble on a beach on the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.
Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images
Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

While other animals follow rainfall or food, Adélie penguins trail the sun. During wintertime, these tiny penguins cross the “fast ice” that forms around the Ross Sea off Antarctica. They then waddle back to their breeding spot in the summer. In Antarctica, the winter sun never entirely sets, giving the penguins plenty of warmth and hunting hours.

Some Adélie penguin migrations span as far as 10,900 miles (17600 km). Their breeding colonies can contain over 180,000 nests. In 2013, scientists reported that climate change increased Adélie penguin population by 53% because of the shorter journey between land and sea.

Dragonfly Migrations Are Longer Than Monarch Butterflies’

A Southern Darter dragonfly is pictured in the Israeli Mediterranean coastal city of Netanya.
JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images
JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Dragonflies make the longest migration of all insects, so long that they go through four generations before completing it. Each year, over 50 species of dragonflies cover every continent except Antarctica.

Biologists at Rutgers University have discovered that dragonflies follow moist weather, flying over 10,500 miles (1700 km) over the Indian Ocean from Asia to Africa. Their research, published in PLoS One, suggests that these species have developed wings with higher surface area to soar farther.

Jaws Swims Really Far To Get To California

Great White Sharks seasonally gather off the coast of Guadalupe Island
Dave J Hogan/Dave J Hogan/Getty Images
Dave J Hogan/Dave J Hogan/Getty Images

Every year, the longest shark in the world swims farther than any other shark. Great whites travel as far as 2,500 miles (4000 km) from California to South Africa in only 99 days. Like many animals, they’re willing to migrate incredibly far for a better food supply.

For years, scientists wondered how great white sharks travel for so long without food, until researchers at the University of Hawaii uncovered the answer. The sharks’ liver stores plenty of blubber, which saves their energy by allowing them to drift dive and remain buoyant.

Alaskan Bar-Tailed Godwits Travel Nine Days Without Food Or Water

Alaskan bar-tailed godwits walk along the sea shore
Pinterest/Martín Pérez
Pinterest/Martín Pérez

Alaskan bar-tailed godwits hold the world record for the longest nonstop flight. Every year, these birds fly for nine days straight–over 7,000 miles (11300 km)–from Alaska to New Zealand. Their overall trip spans 15,500 miles (25000 km).

Like other birds, bar-tailed godwits migrate for more food before returning to their breeding grounds in the summer. The U.S. Geological Survey compared their migration to running for a full week without food or water. On their return flight, they stop at the Yellow Sea to replenish their energy for their May breeding season.

Zooplankton Migrate Vertically Every Day

close-up of a microscopic zooplankton
Twitter/@SciMatty
Twitter/@SciMatty

During the day, zooplankton descend up to 600 meters underwater. After the sun sets, they float up to the surface. This process, known as diel vertical migration, allows the zooplankton to feed on phytoplankton while hiding under the cover of night. It also prevents UV damage.

Zooplankton move up to 3,000 feet (900 m) during dawn and dusk, accounting for a 6,000-foot (1800 m) daily migration. Scientists still don’t know how zooplankton time their diel vertical movement. Theories range from an internal clock to sensing sound waves from the surface.

Blue Wildebeest Hike The Most Famous Migration

Wildebeests, also called gnus or wildebai, migrating through the grasslands towards the Mara River in Kenya
Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images
Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

All year round, over two million blue wildebeest hike across Northern Tanzania and Kenya in what is known as the Great Migration. From north to south, wildebeests walk over 1,800 miles (3000 km) each year in an endless circle.

Herds as long as 25 miles (40 km) migrate nonstop to follow rainfall, where the grass will be greener and longer. Safaris, photographers, and predators follow their predictable cycle every year. Their journey has been recognized as one of the “Seven Wonders of the Natural World.”

Zebras Trot The Longest The Migration Of All African Mammals

Group of Zebras at savanna in Kenya.
Godong/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Godong/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In 2014, biologists discovered that another mammal beat the wildebeest when it comes to the longest hike from end to end. In the journal Oryx, researchers recorded that over 750,000 zebras traverse almost 300 miles (500 km) from Namibia to Botswana. That’s a 63-hour drive farther than the wildebeests’ destination.

Like wildebeests, zebras follow the African rains for better feeding grounds. But their direct, north-south route surprised scientists. For years, their route had been blocked by fences; as soon as the fences were removed, the zebras resumed their journey. This suggests that they could migrate based on memory.

Northern Elephant Seals Divide Migrations Based On Gender

northern elephant seal pup poking its head out of the water
Pinterest/Marine Mammal Center
Pinterest/Marine Mammal Center

Northern elephant seals make the second longest migration of any mammal, over 13,000 miles (21000 km) in total. Every year, they make the entire trip twice, returning to land only to breed and molt their fur. While on land, they fast for two to four months, depending on their sex. They spend most of their journey–up to eight months every year–in the Pacific Ocean.

Males and females traverse different routes because they prefer different meals. The males feed on rays and small sharks off the coast of Alaska. Female elephant seals prey on deep-sea squids along with their pups.

Semipalmated Sandpipers Travel Far For Their Small Size

a semipalmated sandpipers scans the shoreline for food
Pinterest/Monique Applewhite
Pinterest/Monique Applewhite

Semipalmated sandpipers are less than 20 cm long but tackle one of the longest migrations in the animal kingdom. In spring and summer, these tiny shorebirds line the tundras of Alaska. But in the fall, they travel over span 3,300 miles (5300 km) to South American beaches. For 2,000 of those miles, they fly nonstop over the Atlantic Ocean.

Because sandpipers can shelter anywhere from Peru to Venezuela, researchers have a hard time tracking them. However, recent research has demonstrated that the species has decreased by 80% since the 1980s.

Humpback Whales Swim From Alaska To Hawaii In Thirty-Six Days

Humpback whales seen in the Avachinskaya Gulf near the Kamchatka Peninsula
Yuri SmityukTASS via Getty Images
Yuri SmityukTASS via Getty Images

Of all the mammals, humpback whales take on the longest migration in the world. In the fall, they feed in the waters of Japan, California, and the Bering Sea. When the temperature lowers, they swim almost 14,000 miles (22000 km) to Costa Rica and the Philippines for more food.

Not all humpback whales migrate at the same time; some leave around January, whereas others embark as late as February. To find enough krill for a stable breeding ground, humpbacks will travel from Alaska to Hawaii in as little as 36 days.

Reindeer Don’t Fly, But They Do Travel Far

Caribou migrate over 3000 miles every year, the longest of any land mammal
Twitter/@USFS
Twitter/@USFS

Caribous, or reindeer, migrate over 3,100 miles (5000 km) every year for their entire lives. Their summer grounds in Alaska sprout nutritious food that helps their calves grow. In the winter, that range becomes a desolate wasteland, so they move to a warmer area.

Caribou often travel in herds with up to 50,000 members and walk around 43 miles (70 km) a day. After documenting their migration through satellite ever year, scientists have discovered that caribou do not migrate the same distance every year. Weather conditions and lack of food can spur their journey farther.

The Largest Turtle Swims The Longest Distance

Previously unreleased photo of a Leatherback sea turtle, the worlds largest turtle, checking her eggs as she lays them in daylight.
Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images
Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images

The biggest sea turtle breed, leatherback turtles swim over 10,000 miles (1600 km) to follow their favorite food, jellyfish. Research in 2012 found leatherbacks nesting in Indonesia, the South China Sea, southern Australia, and the west coast of the United States.

Both males and females will always return to their birthplace to breed. Currently, scientists don’t know how they calculate their path, but some believe that the light pink spot on their head tracks light or ocean currents.

Sooty Shearwater Fly Thousands Of Miles Every Year

sooty shearwater flying across the water by Robert Cavesooty shearwater flying across the water by Robert Cave
Tumblr/@avianeurope
Tumblr/@avianeurope

In the summer, sooty shearwater birds breed in New Zealand. As winter descends, they soar over 4,000 miles north (6400 km) to feed for several months. Some travel west to Japan and Russia, while others dot the shorelines of Alaska and Canada.

Sooty shearwaters can cross 620 miles (1000 km) in a single day. Following the wind systems, they end up in the Pacific regions after 200 days, where they eat krill and squids. Lucky shearwaters will make this trip every year for over 60 years.

Gray Whaled Roam Almost As Far As Humpbacks

A family of Gray Whales swim in the waters off the coast of Los Cabos, Mexico City
Marcos Delgado/Clasos.com/LatinContent via Getty Images
Marcos Delgado/Clasos.com/LatinContent via Getty Images

Gray whales travel almost as far as humpback whales. In the spring, they swim from the shores of Mexico to the Arctic seas every year, traversing 12,000 miles (20000 km) overall. Gray whales use sonar navigation to guide their way, and sound pollution from boats can confuse them.

As the ice melts in summer, gray whales can swim there to fatten up for their future breeding season. They then return to warmer waters to give birth. The full migration takes them two to three months.

Salmon Travel Through Freshwater And Saltwater

Red salmon spawning season in Kamchatka, Russia
Yuri SmityukTASS via Getty Images
Yuri SmityukTASS via Getty Images

Every year, hoards of salmon swim around 2,350 miles (3800 km) to the freshwater rivers where they were born. Why? Because they want to produce offspring in a safe environment that they’re familiar with. A single salmon may travel from Japan’s oceans to its native Seattle-area rivers.

As babies, salmon undergo physiological changes for the first 2-3 years of their lives, so they must be born in fresh water. Recent studies indicate that salmon can sense the Earth’s magnetic field and use it to guide their migration. Unlike other species, salmon have inherited this skill, not learned it.

Straw-Colored Bats Veil The Skies

straw colored bat hanging off a tree
Reddit/u/remotectrl
Reddit/u/remotectrl

Once a year, ten million straw-colored bats come together in Kasanka National Park, Zambia, to begin their long migration. They flap their wings from southern African all the way to the Arabian Peninsula in October and December.

Over 90 days, straw-colored bats fly 2,600 miles (4212 km) to reach fruitful feeding grounds. Those who have witnessed the migration claim that bats clouded the sky for over thirty minutes. After their migration, they huddle in colonies of up to one million to breed.

The Red Crabs Of Christmas Island Walk With The Moon

woman crouches near the red crabs migrating on Christmas Island off of Australia
Reddit/u/spewintothiss
Reddit/u/spewintothiss

Every year, over 120 million red crabs swarm Christmas Island off the coast of Australia. These crabs arrive sometime during the wet season of October or November, although no one can predict when they’ll tumble onto the shore. For the sake of their offspring, they follow the moon’s phases.

Red crabs spawn their children: they drop their eggs into the sea. They need to spawn during the last quarter moon when the tides are the lowest. To breed, red crabs crawl for over 12 hours every day over a week.

Saiga Antelopes Migrate Through Deserts

a saiga antelope migrating across arid plains
Twitter/@thalestral
Twitter/@thalestral

Along with having unusually long, flexible noses, saiga antelopes have unconventionally long migrations. In November, tens of thousands of saigas walk south up to 72 miles (115 km) a day. They pull through 620 miles (1000 km) of arid steppes throughout Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Mongolia, and the southern corners of Russia.

Saigas are built to bounce back from harsh conditions to reach their ideal grazing plains. Unfortunately, disease and over-hunting have landed this species on the critically endangered list. The Saiga Conservation Alliance is working to keep saiga antelopes’ migration pattern safe.