Looking for a great eating place? Ask a local for the scoop. The same kind of insider food info helps animals too. According to a study in the journal Science, researchers say shared knowledge also shapes the spring migrations of moose and bighorn sheep.
Humans are just beginning to understand a few of the amazing abilities God gave all His created beings—hoofed animals included. (Genesis 1:25) Researchers now say those skills include feeding locaters that could rival a local eats app.
Researchers think animals may learn about where to graze from other members of their herds. Animals pass on the food-finding know-how through generations. What’s more, new research shows that the knowledge base seems to improve as the years go by.
Researchers used GPS-enabled collars to track the movements of 267 bighorn sheep and 189 moose in Wyoming, Idaho, and South Dakota. Satellites track vegetation along the migration routes. Scientists know where and when plants reach the exact growth stage animals prefer. The collars let researchers know when the animals approach the ripe chow.
Some of the collared animals came from long-established herds. Those herds had lived in the same habitat for at least 200 years. Others came from more recent herds—ones that entered their home range 30-50 years before. Did animals really learn over time? If so, scientists reasoned, then moose or sheep from older herds would locate prime foraging places better than those from herds with a shorter history.
GPS data confirms the researchers’ hunch: The longer a herd has been around, the better its animals are at finding the best food. Researchers also found out that older herds are more likely to move from one region to another to find quality food. Results show that in younger herds, only about 25% of the tracked animals migrated. But almost all the animals from the older herds chose to migrate.
Researchers believe young animals get migration and food location skills from watching their mothers or other herd members. Decades-long improvement in forage-finding suggests that herds build on knowledge across generations.
Animal conservation efforts could benefit from the study’s findings. Researchers now know that protecting migration corridors is important. If a route followed by animals moving between seasonal habitats gets blocked—such as by construction of a highway—it can take decades for big game herds to establish a new one.