Study reveals big game animals must learn to migrate and pass knowledge across generations

Project Overview

Bighorn sheep migrationToday the magazine Science, one of the top journals in the world, released a University of Wyoming study that provides the first empirical evidence that ungulates (hooved mammals) must learn where and when to migrate, and that they maintain their seasonal migrations by passing cultural knowledge across generations.

This study is getting press all over the nation, and in Europe too.

Lead author Brett Jesmer is a Uwyo PhD student in the Program in Ecology advised by Zoology and Physiology Department professors Matthew Kauffman and Jacob Goheen. Together with a team of coauthors which includes several other WMI researchers, they compared long-established herds of migratory bighorn sheep and moose with herds relocated to unfamiliar habitat.

Wyoming Game and Fish Department has made a dedicated effort to reintroduce bighorn sheep, more than 1,500 since 1949, and the Idaho Fish and Game has had a similar long-standing translocation effort. Agency biologists from both states contributed to this study.

The researchers found that animals translocated to new habitat lost their migratory behaviors. Such herds required many decades and generations to establish new migration corridors — up to 90 years for moose.

In other words, if a migratory herd is wiped out, you quite likely won't see animals migrating again in that area in your lifetime. That's because migration knowledge is not genetic. Instead, these animals learn how to migrate through experience and this knowledge passed from parent to offspring, similar to how information is shared in human culture.

Matt Kauffman, WMI director and leader of the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Unit, says the takeaway is that, "the best way to conserve migration corridors is to protect the landscapes that these corridors depend on today, which will also maintain the cultural knowledge that helps sustain abundant herds."

Congratulations also to lead author Brett Jesmer, who just defended his PhD dissertation today.

Many more migration stories will be available in the Wild Migrations atlas, due out this October. Learn more and get a discount code to preorder here.

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More About the Study

Hear Brett Jesmer talk about the research on this UWYO video:

Science - teaser video AAAS - The American Association for the Advancement of Science:

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