The World’s Longest Migration: The Arctic Tern

Samuel Reason | January 25th, 2017

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Recently, technology helped scientists make another fascinating discovery: the animal with the longest migration route on the planet. As you might expect, it was a bird, but its size might surprise you. Rather than a large, powerful bird like an eagle or hawk, researchers found that it was the Arctic tern, a small seabird species native to far-north Europe, North America, and Asia, and weighing only about 4 ounces! Using a recently-developed type of miniature tracking device, scientists tracked the birds traveling an astonishing 44,000 miles per year. That’s 4,000 miles farther than the closest runner-up for longest flier, the sooty tern. Previously, tracking devices were too bulky to attach to all but the largest birds, but technology has taken a “tern” for the better, allowing for this interesting discovery.

The Arctic tern’s long migratory flight begins in its breeding grounds, a large area covering northern Europe, Asia, and North America. They flee the extremely harsh, Arctic winter by making their way to Antarctica to take advantage of the southern summer. The shortest distance between the bird’s breeding grounds and wintering grounds is about 12,000 miles, and they make the journey there and back every year. The birds that researchers studied flew from Greenland to Antarctica, clocking in somewhere around that 12,000 mile estimate. So how did the birds manage to rack up 44,000 total miles in a year’s migration? Well, terns don’t travel “as the crow flies;” In fact, the researchers noted that the birds followed a zig-zag pattern on their way back to Greenland from Antarctica, first stopping in Africa, then South America, and finally make their way to the Arctic. They think that the birds are following wind patterns, which allows them to avoid flying straight into the wind. Maybe that explains this tiny bird’s tremendous stamina. What’s more, the oldest recorded Arctic tern was 34 years old; assuming all terns travel about the same yearly distance, that means this bird traveled about 1.5 million miles in its lifetime, which is about the same distance as three trips to the moon and back. These birds really get around!

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