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24/05/2017 - Zebras follow their memory when migrating

Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 05/23/2017. 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 today 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.

The researchers compared the simulated tracks with real-life tracks from GPS-tagged zebras which were collected by other researchers. Memory using past average conditions was able to predict the migration destination of the modelled zebras up to four times closer than those modelled using perception to find their way. “Memory even beats perception at the largest – that is omniscient – perceptual ranges”, says Bracis and adds “However perception is still important. Other studies have shown the importance of perception of current local conditions on the timing and speed of the zebra migration, but these may be less important for zebras in terms of direction.”

Migration routes of zebras are threatened by climate change and land use change in southern Africa. The zebra migration examined in this study, for instance, was blocked by a fence from the late 60’s until 2004. The researchers therefore see the study as contributing to the conservation of large migratory terrestrial mammals such as zebras. "One can only protect migration routes efficiently if one knows how the animals migrate. If memory of past conditions informs the direction migrating animals take, this suggests migration routes could be relatively inflexible”, concludes Mueller.


Dr. Chloe Bracis
Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre & Goethe University Frankfurt
Phone +49 (0)69- 7542 1846

Jun.-Prof. Dr. Thomas Mueller
Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre &
Goethe University Frankfurt
Phone +49 (0)69- 7542 1889

Sabine Wendler
Press officer
Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre
Phone +49 (0)69- 7542 1818


Bracis, C., Mueller, Th. (2017): Memory, not just perception plays an important role in terrestrial mammal migration. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, doi: 10.1098/rspb.2017.0449

To study and understand nature with its limitless diversity of living creatures and to preserve and manage it in a sustainable fashion as the basis of life for future generations – this has been the goal of the Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung (Senckenberg Nature Research Society) for 200 years. This integrative “geobiodiversity research” and the dissemination of research and science are among Senckenberg’s main tasks. Three nature museums in Frankfurt, Görlitz and Dresden display the diversity of life and the earth’s development over millions of years. The Senckenberg Nature Research Society is a member of the Leibniz Association. The Senckenberg Nature Museum in Frankfurt am Main is supported by the City of Frankfurt am Main as well as numerous other partners. Additional information can be found at www.senckenberg.de.

200 years of Senckenberg! 2017 marks Senckenberg’s anniversary year. For 200 years, the society, which was founded in 1817, has dedicated itself to nature research with curiosity, passion and involvement. Senckenberg will celebrate its 200-year success story with a colorful program consisting of numerous events, specially designed exhibitions and a grand museum party in the fall. Of course, the program also involves the presentation of current research and future projects. Additional information can be found at: www.200jahresenckenberg.

Press contact

Dr. Sören Dürr
Tel.: 069 7542-1580

Judith Jördens
Tel.: 069 7542-1434
Mobil: 0172-5842340

Anna Lena Schnettler
Tel.: 069 7542-1561


Forschungsinstitut und Naturmuseum
Senckenberganlage 25
60325 Frankfurt


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