Memory, not just perception, plays an important role in terrestrial mammalian migration

Proc Biol Sci. 2017 May 31;284(1855):20170449. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2017.0449.


One of the key questions regarding the underlying mechanisms of mammalian land migrations is how animals select where to go. Most studies assume perception of resources as the navigational mechanism. The possible role of memory that would allow forecasting conditions at distant locations and times based on information about environmental conditions from previous years has been little studied. We study migrating zebra in Botswana using an individual-based simulation model, where perceptually guided individuals use currently sensed resources at different perceptual ranges, while memory-guided individuals use long-term averages of past resources to forecast future conditions. We compare simulated individuals guided by perception or memory on resource landscapes of remotely sensed vegetation data to trajectories of GPS-tagged zebras. Our results show that memory provides a clear signal that best directs migrants to their destination compared to perception at even the largest perceptual ranges. Zebras modelled with memory arrived two to four times, or up to 100 km, closer to the migration destination than those using perception. We suggest that memory in addition to perception is important for directing ungulate migration. Furthermore, our findings are important for the conservation of migratory mammals, as memory informing direction suggests migration routes could be relatively inflexible.

Keywords: green wave; mammalian migration; memory; navigation; perception; zebra.

MeSH terms

  • Animal Migration*
  • Animals
  • Botswana
  • Equidae / physiology*
  • Memory*
  • Perception*