WASHINGTON (Aug. 16, 2010)—Whether they crawl, canter, fly or swim, millions of animals undertake epic journeys each year — some as long as 44,000 miles. For countless species, migration is a dramatic, dangerous and crucial endeavor — and it is arguably the greatest spectacle that nature orchestrates.
The migration story — what drives animals to make their journeys, how scientists are tracking their movements, the impact of habitat loss and climate change on migration, and the latest scientific discoveries helping us understand a world in constant motion — are explored in GREAT MIGRATIONS (ISBN 978-1-4262-0644-3, $35), a new book from National Geographic publishing Tuesday, Oct. 12.
Authored by Karen Kostyal, a former senior editor of National Geographic magazine, the book is the companion volume to the seven-hour, high-definition National Geographic Channel global television event “Great Migrations,” narrated by Alec Baldwin and premiering this November in 330 million homes, 166 countries and 34 languages. The program was the brainchild of David Hamlin, who produced the series and who wrote the afterword for this book.
“Migration is the ultimate story of instinct and survival. For without the great migrations — the waves of wildebeests crossing the Serengeti, the wing beats of a billion monarch butterflies lifting from the mountains of Mexico, the armada of Pacific walruses floating with the ice through the Bering Strait — whole species would head toward extinction. But what internal and external forces drive animals to make these risky yet deliberate journeys, crossing hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles? What tells them when to move, and what guides them to their destinations? What propels them to face predators and natural forces that are sure to cost the lives of many of them, particularly their young?” writes Kostyal.
These are questions that scientists have worked for decades to answer. They have some of the answers for some of the animals, but the great migrations remain a mystery of navigation and endurance — a mystery pondered and celebrated in the pages of this book and in the National Geographic Channel series that it echoes.
Filled with fascinating facts and action-packed photographs, the book takes readers around the globe as it offers exciting new perspectives on migratory animals and their remarkable behaviors, some of which have never before been seen or recorded. The epic drama is brought to life through more than 250 state-of-the art color images, including heart-pounding scenes captured by world-class photographers and iconic stills from the television program.
The book explores the main forces that drive animals to undertake these seasonal pilgrimages: the need to breed, the need to find food and the need to find a more favorable climate or better living conditions. The migratory habits of more than 30 creatures are highlighted, including flying foxes, red crabs, sperm whales, white-eared kob, army ants, golden jellyfish, black-browed albatrosses, loggerhead turtles, sockeye salmon, Mali elephants and the four-ounce arctic tern that covers 44,000 miles in its zigzagging migration between Greenland and Antarctica — the longest distance covered by any migrating animal.
How do animals navigate their often perilous journeys? Many migrating creatures seem to have some sophisticated navigational equipment in common. Most appear to use sight cues and their memory of landscape markers to guide them on their migratory route. Many animals are able to see light that humans can’t — ultraviolet, polarized, infrared — and they use these light cues as well as a “sun compass” to guide them. Stars, too, light the way for many animals, particularly birds, which apparently have a star chart in their heads. What is remarkable about this is their ability to make adjustments in their flight patterns as they head in any direction, recalibrating their direction to correct for changes in the night sky as the seasons and the animals’ latitudinal positions change. Odor, too, may come into play, familiarizing the migrating animals with local conditions in much the same way that visual landmarks do. And for marine animals, wave action, temperatures and currents can provide clues.
Recent studies seem to indicate that many animals are equipped with their own biological magnetic compass. Scientists know that monarch butterflies, birds and other migrating animals actually have microscopic bits of magnetite — a magnetic ore — in their bodies that sensitize them to the geomagnetic field. They “read” the Earth’s geomagnetism and set their courses accordingly.
Yet, as the book explains, even these navigational tools can’t protect the Earth’s migrants from new and immediate threats — their overexploitation by hunters and fishermen, loss of their habitat, man-made obstacles blocking their age-old routes and a changing climate. “The phenomenon of migration is disappearing around the world,” warns ecology and evolutionary biologist David Wilcove. And with the loss of migration goes the disappearance of species and the very web of biodiversity.
Biologists, environmentalists and concerned citizens are working to monitor and save the migrating flocks, herds and pods of the natural world. In just a few decades, the science and technology to do this have become remarkably more sophisticated — monitoring techniques have evolved from banding birds to tracking animals by GPS to using a new sophisticated device similar to a flight black box recorder that records a marine animal’s respiration rate, speed, depth, roll, pitch and direction eight times a second.
In his “Producer’s Notebook” afterword, David Hamlin writes about the three-year TV production odyssey, during which the film team traveled more than 400,000 miles, withstood temperatures from minus 20 deg F to 120 deg F, and spent more than 200 hours filming from helicopters, more than 100 hours filming from shark cages and more than 400 hours filming while hanging in trees.
“We were inspired and sobered by our journey. We gained a deeper sense of wonder and inspiration after filming just a few of the countless creatures that must run, swim, and fly for their lives. We also earned a deeper understanding of our planet’s fragility — and that we humans are migrants, too. We are a restless species, harboring an impulse to move that is a key to our success and our dominion over the planet. But how will humans and wildlife travel together into the future? The ‘Great Migrations’ team wanted to fundamentally change viewers’ response to migrating creatures. We visualized that people who watched our series might wake up the next day and gaze across a field, over the sea, or up to the sky with a new reaction. If they saw a flurry of migrating creatures, they wouldn’t simply pause and say, ‘Wow, isn’t that beautiful!’ Instead, they’d stop and say, ‘Wow, I’m rooting for you …’ We hope the images in our films and in this book serve as a kind of touchstone — reminding us that life exists only when we move together and survive as one.”
National Geographic also is publishing five children’s books based on the “Great Migrations” television series. The official children’s companion to the television event is “Great Migrations: Whales, Wildebeests, Butterflies, Elephants, and Other Amazing Animals on the Move,” by Elizabeth Carney. Created for the huge audience of young animal lovers — and for schools, where migration is taught as part of the curriculum — the book spotlights wild creatures that appeal to children. Full of fun facts and figures and lavishly illustrated, the book captures the animals’ amazing journeys as well as young readers’ imaginations.
The other four children’s books, “Amazing Journeys,” “Butterflies,” “Elephants” and “Whales,” all by Laura Marsh, are level-3 readers, designed for kids who are reading on their own. The books are jam-packed with fun sidebars, weird-but-true facts, riddles and other entertaining elements, ensuring that kids enjoy a reading adventure while learning about the epic journeys of their favorite animals.
In addition to the books and television program, the Great Migrations topic will be featured on nearly every National Geographic media platform — the project is the largest cross-platform initiative in the National Geographic Society’s 122-year history. Great Migrations will be the cover story and a supplement in the November issue of National Geographic magazine and also will be featured in National Geographic Traveler and National Geographic Kids magazines. Great Migrations will also be the subject of a map, iPhone apps, downloadable games, National Geographic Museum exhibit, National Geographic Live lecture series and screenings, education programs, and several National Geographic Expeditions trips where travelers can experience the wonders of migrations firsthand.
About the author of GREAT MIGRATIONS
Karen Kostyal has written and edited books and articles on a wide range of subjects. In the past year, she has edited major books on changing cultural and climatic conditions in the circumpolar Arctic and on the natural and human history of the Great Plains. She also authored “Abraham Lincoln’s Extraordinary Era,” a joint publication of National Geographic’s book division and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library; “1776: A New Look at Revolutionary Williamsburg”; and “Lost Boy, Lost Girl: Escaping Civil War in Sudan” for National Geographic children’s books.