Monday, 5 June 2017

Zebras follow their memory when migrating

Date: May 24, 2017
Source: Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum
Zebras may use memory to guide their migration each year. Memory based on past average conditions provides a clear signal that best directs zebras to their destination. In contrast, current vegetation conditions along the way are less important for the direction of the migration according to a computer simulation by researchers from Senckenberg. The study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, highlights that migration routes of large terrestrial mammals such as zebras could be more inflexible than previously thought.

It's incredible to watch: each year thousands of animals, including zebras, wildebeests and gazelles, migrate in turn with the seasons between foraging grounds. The animals migrate long distances in their search for sufficient and highly nutritious forage. While science has explained certain aspects of this migration, it is not fully understood how the animals know where to go.

Chloe Bracis, a researcher at the German Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre and the Goethe University Frankfurt, has found that memory is the key to directing zebra migration: "Zebras appear to migrate to the location where foraging conditions were best in the past. They seem to navigate to their destination based on memory, and importantly, forecast conditions several months after arrival."

As part of the study, Bracis and her colleague Thomas Mueller modelled migration routes of zebras using computer simulations. Zebras migrate around 250 kilometers from the Okavango Delta, Botswana to the Makgadikgadi grasslands in November. "We tested two mechanisms which can influence the direction. Simulated zebras could use perception and sense, for example, the vegetation green up in their current surroundings. Alternatively, zebras could use memory, i.e. information from previous migrations, to forecast where to go ," explains Mueller.


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