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Nature & You: Animal migration is still a mystery

How do birds and other animals know when to migrate? [The Oklahoman archives]
How do birds and other animals know when to migrate? [The Oklahoman archives]

Animal migration is still a mystery

There's a lot about nature that we still don't understand.

Wild animal migration is a case in point.

You're probably already aware that changes in day length are the cues that wild animals use as their calendar. As days get shorter and shorter, it signals the end of summer and the approach of winter.

"But what about temperature?" you might ask. "After all, it's hot in the summer and is definitely not so much so at year's end." The problem with using air temperature as a calendar guide is that Oklahoma meteorology can be pretty darn fickle. It's hot one day and then freezing on the next, ad nauseam.

Long-lived creatures, including wild geese, can benefit from the life experiences and knowledge that the eldest individuals have accumulated over the years. Thus, there's no need to "reinvent the wheel." Young geese can follow along in the slipstream of the geese matriarchs and patriarchs.

That's all well and good, but how does one explain the annual migratory treks of wild creatures such as monarch butterflies? When shortened day length signals a need to travel from Canada to Mexico, all of the living monarch butterflies are several generations removed from those individuals that made the migration trip on the previous year; all of those experienced butterflies are long since dead. It just amazes me that these young butterflies know what to do. Science is somewhat at a loss to explain it to everyone's satisfaction.

I guess that it will always be that way. We'll never really have all of the answers.

Young, up-and-coming scientists have their work cut out for them. Maybe that's the way it should be. What would life be like if we already knew all of the answers? A little bit of mystery is a good thing.

— Neil Garrison, NewsOK Contributor

Neil Garrison was the longtime naturalist at a central Oklahoma nature center.

Neil Garrison

Neil Garrison is an outdoor nature enthusiast. He is a graduate of Oklahoma State University/Stillwater; he earned a B.S. degree in Wildlife Ecology. Prior to his 2009 retirement, he was the Naturalist at a central Oklahoma nature center for 30... Read more ›

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