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Smaller than an Emperor yet distinctly more enterprising, Adélies travel from breeding colonies to winter feeding grounds. Researchers have found that these birds migrate, on average, more than 12,500 kilometres a year; one intrepid adventurer even clocked up 17,600 kilometres in a 12-month period. To put that in perspective, it’s shorter to walk around Australia’s coastline.
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These pretty-in-pink aviators are found in many tropical and subtropical areas around the world. Often they aren’t migratory, but lesser flamingos in eastern Africa's Rift Valley wing between the area’s alkaline lakes as part of their feeding and breeding cycles.
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Found mostly in North America, this migratory species travels as far north as Alaska and as far south as Florida. During their annual commute, more than 75% of the world’s population of Sandhill cranes take a stopover along Nebraska’s Platte River.
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Crossing 150 kilometres of rocky, icy barrenness is part and parcel of being an Emperor penguin. After a three-month ocean-food binge between January and March, entire colonies trek across the ice to rookeries. The female lays a single egg, which her mate then guards assiduously for four months. The back and forth journey between ocean and rookeries is carried out several times a year for a penguin’s entire life cycle.
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Each year, more than a million wildebeest complete an 800-kilometre clockwise loop from the plains of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania to the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya and back, chasing (quite literally!) greener pastures that change with seasons.
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Joining the wildebeest on the traverse of game preserves in Kenya and Tanzania are an estimated 750,000 zebras. Together with the wildebeest, gazelles and other species, there are more than two million herbivores on the move: the largest land mammal migration on the planet.
Straw-Coloured Fruit Bats
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Africa is title-holder for the largest land mammal migration (see previous slide) and also happens to be number one for largest mammal migration overall. Surprisingly, bats wear the mammal migration crown: straw-coloured fruit bats live in colonies all across tropical Africa but, in November, eight million of them assemble in Zambia's Kasanka National Park to eat the seasonal fruit on offer here.
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In the North American autumn, millions of monarch butterflies take off from parts of Canada and the US to travel to forests in central Mexico, and millions turn up, back where the swarm started, after winter – a circuit of up to 4,500 kilometres. But no individual butterfly completes the trip; instead, females lay eggs along the way, then die, leaving the next one in the cycle to fly the next leg. It’s only the fourth generation of butterfly that returns home.
Painted Lady Butterfly
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The monarchs might be the most renowned insect migration, but the painted lady’s expedition is arguably more impressive. The ladies cover approximately 14,000 kilometres annually from parts of northern Britain and Iceland to south of the Sahara in Africa each year; it can take up to six generations to complete the journey.
Globe Skimmer Dragonfly
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Dethroning both the monarchs and the ladies is a globetrotting dragonfly shorter than your thumb. The globe skimmer dragonfly travels from India to East Africa via the Maldives and back; scientists estimate they cover more than 17,500 kilometres each year. Image: Flickr/Vicki-DeLoach (CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0)
Christmas Island Red Crab
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If the thought of eight million bats is a head-spin, consider the 50 million red crabs on Christmas Island. Each year, at the beginning of the wet season (usually between October and December), the adults crawl en masse from the forest to the coast to spawn and breed.
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Another long-haul expert, Arctic terns cover a convoluted 71,000-kilometre circuit between Greenland and Antarctica each year. These small birds can live for 30 years, which equates to about 2.4 million kilometres in a lifetime. National Geographic points out that that’s three trips to the moon and back – a lot of time on the wing for a bird that weighs around 100 grams. And just think of the Frequent Flyer miles…
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White storks journey from as far north as Denmark to as far south as South Africa. These long-distance aviators won’t fly over the Mediterranean because the wind currents required for their journey don’t form over large bodies of water. Consequently, millions of birds pass through the Near East twice a year, especially places like Turkey and Israel.
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Each year, gentle giants mass in the waters of the Ningaloo Reef on the Coral Coast off Western Australia and off the Yucatan peninsula near Mexico. While whale shark migratory patterns at other times of year are still a mystery (particularly compared with many other species), it’s certain these filter feeders congregate in these areas because they are rich feeding grounds.
Southern Right Whale
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Much like the whale sharks, there are still many unknowns surrounding the migratory patterns and grounds of southern right whales but we do know that they feed in the Southern Ocean in the summer and then migrate north in winter to breed. An estimated 12,000 southern right whales are spread throughout the southern hemisphere; each year you can see some of that population as they navigate Australian coastlines.
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These impala-like ungulates are big movers in the Boma-Jonglei area in South Sudan. Researchers estimate that more than 800,000 of them traverse 1,000 kilometres from the Bandingilo National Park to the Boma National Park on South Sudan-Ethiopia borderlands and back. On their journey they mingle with tiang antelopes and Mongalla gazelles forming a host of more than 1.2 million creatures—thus rivalling the hordes of wildebeest on the Serengeti.
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Gracefully gliding in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, cownose rays migrate twice a year following the clockwise current from Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula to Florida. Moving in groups of up to 10,000, they’ve been seen as far north as New England and as far south as the Caribbean. Fun fact: the collective noun for a group of stingrays is “a fever”.
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While the wildebeest and zebra hold the title for largest land mammal migration, caribou win the gong for longest: these nomads in North America can travel almost 5,000 kilometres annually, traversing from the interior to the coast.
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Another hooved wanderer, these gazelles are found on the steppes of eastern Mongolia. Their traditional habitat was much larger, including parts of China and Russia, but much of that has been lost. The herds spend their lives in motion, sometimes covering more than 300 kilometres in a day in search of fresh pasture.
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In Wyoming, mule deer cross fences, highways and rivers in an annual 240-kilometre circuit, the second longest terrestrial mammal migration on the North American continent, after those of caribou.
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They hatch in freshwater river systems of western North America, from Alaska and Canada all the way to California, then these swimmers spend, on average, three to four years in the Pacific Ocean before returning to the waterway where they were born. Those that hatch in the Yukon River have the longest journey: some 3,000 km from the Bering Sea to the spawning grounds near Whitehorse, Yukon.
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Gray whales spend summers feeding in Alaskan and Russian waters, then head south to their mating and calving grounds around the Baja peninsula. In 2015, a tagged gray set a record-smashing distance, roaming more than 22,000 kilometres across the Pacific Ocean.
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Gray whales travel far, but it’s generally accepted that the humble humpback wins the award for the longest mammalian migration on earth. These cetaceans swim more than 25,000 kilometres a year from polar feeding waters to more tropical climes where they breed and give birth during the winter.
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Giving new meaning to long-haul, the bar-tailed godwit holds the record for longest non-stop flight, a distance of 11,500 kilometres from Alaska to New Zealand. These small shorebirds breed in Scandinavia, northern Asia and Alaska, and then escape the northern hemisphere winter by heading to New Zealand and Australia to enjoy our summer.
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Like most of the species on this list, the pectoral sandpiper gets kudos for mileage, journeying from breeding grounds in Alaska, Canada and Northern Asia to Southern America and Australia, clocking up some 30,000 kilometres in any given year.
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These large seabirds – they have a wingspan of more than a metre – fly a whopping 64,000 kilometres annually in search of food, sometimes travelling 1,000 kilometres in a day. They depart their New Zealand base in winter, heading north to reach seasonal feeding grounds in coastal California, Alaska, far-east Russia and Japan before returning to NZ.
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It’s probably the least lovely of the species in this round-up – and one of the most despised, given it’s a pest than can seriously damage crops – but the corn-leaf aphid has the chops to travel from Texas to Illinois in search of food, a distance of more than 1,000 kilometres. For a creature less than 2mm long, that’s fairly impressive. Image: Flickr/Scot-Nelson-(CC-BY-2.0.).