Ungulates have to learn migration, it’s not instinctive

WYOMING – Fascinating research out of University of Wyoming found that ungulates like deer, elk, and moose, must learn to migrate. It’s not something they instinctively know or sense—they have to be taught by more experienced “bell cows” who know the when and the where.

The results of work led by UW was published in the journal Science last week. Included among the paper’s authors are Game and Fish biologists out of Jackson—Aly Courtemanch and Doug McWhirter, as well as numerous professors at the state university.

A long-held belief was migration is something wild animals know instinctively. For some species it is true. Migration is built into the very DNA of many birds and insects. What researchers have been learning, however, and what this latest study confirms, is most ungulates remember where good eating is and relay this info to their brethren.

Ecologists have long speculated that memory and social learning underlie ungulate migration. Bison, for instance, remember the locations of high-quality forage and transmit such information to conspecifics. Moose and white-tailed deer, on the other hand, adopt the movement strategies of their mothers.

The data suggests that not only is human interference (through roads and development) a hindrance to migration corridors, but a population disruption could also affect a herd’s ability to remember the way.

According to the study’s authors, “Migration allows ungulates to maximize energy intake by synchronizing their movements with the emergence of high-quality forage across vast landscapes.”

Wildlife biologists call it “surfing the green wave.” Animals move (usually higher in elevation) as their forage greens up and reaches its highest nutritional value. It prevents areas from being grazed out, it keeps animals fit by always being on the move, and it allows ungulates to always be dining at nature’s finest restaurants.

Researchers noted that when relocated for various reasons, it took decades for them to know where to go. Bighorn sheep, for example, relearned a migration route after 40 years; moose in 90 years.

“The pattern was striking,” said lead author Brett Jesmer, a doctoral student at UW. “Detailed GPS data revealed that fewer than 9 percent of translocated animals migrated, but 65 to 100 percent of animals migrated in herds that had never been lost.”

Jesmer added, “These results indicate that ungulates accumulate knowledge of their landscapes over time, and cultural transmission of this knowledge is necessary for migrations to arise and persist.”

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