Lucy Alice Hawkes is tracking animal migration to the ends of the earth

Her research highlights some of the world’s most impressive animal performances

Photograph by Nina Constable Media

For whatever reason, National Geographic Explorer Lucy Alice Hawkes has never been afraid of getting close to wild animals, even the dead ones. It was hard to keep her away from a beached whale when she was a kid, and when a wild bird fell to the ground in her childhood garden, she needed to see it. 

“I’ve always been a bit of a scientist,” she recalls. “Blood, guts, and gore” never put her off, but instead, excited her. It made sense for an aspiring surgeon. 

Now, she’s following animals to the ends of the earth to understand where migratory species go and why they choose to live on the move. Since 2018, Hawkes has been out on fishing boats tracking bluefin tuna, which are usually larger than she is, to learn about their diving behavior. 

Sometimes they shuttle up and down the ocean’s water column, Hawkes says. Years of experience have taught her this usually is part of the bluefin’s breeding rituals. Working shoulder to shoulder with fishermen, she’s observed tuna bursting out of the ocean’s surface to feed on small, silvery fish. She’s familiarized herself with the blue fin’s athletic build and knows that its muscular composition is what makes it such a coveted catch in the sushi industry. 

Though she never performed an operation on a human, through her work today as a biologist, conservationist and researcher, she’s still been able to get close to the bluefin, and other species. 

“I get to touch the wildlife, which I just love,” she says. It fulfills a childhood fervor for exploration that’s stayed with her.

Her work touches policy. Determining animals’ border crossings is critical for management, Hawkes explains. If bluefin tuna were always in the United Kingdom where she studies them, it would be entirely up to the UK government to manage them, but it’s not the case. 

“What our tracking data have shown is that they're probably largely French fish who come on a little bit of a British vacation in the summer,” Hawkes explains. They’ll also coast along Portuguese and Spanish waters for breeding, and take detours where life leads them. 

“We did accidentally track an Orca for two weeks,” she says, remembering the time one of her blue fins was swallowed. Of the 140 tagged in total, five have been caught by shipping vessels. “If you were to multiply that up across the whole population as a catch percentage, it's quite terrifying,” she stresses. One important result of Hawke’s work is it spotlights the damaging effects of dwindling fish stocks, like the plight faced by predators. 

The arctic tern, a small water-loving bird Hawkes is monitoring closely, has been recorded traveling as far as 130 kilometers (80 miles) away from the nest to feed on fish. “It’s further than we hoped they’d have to go,” Hawkes laments, noting the devastating effects of overfishing and climate change on fish populations, particularly in the Arctic. 

The trend is worrying, Hawkes goes on, but she’s also invested in sharing birds’ more spectacular flights, and highlighting just how far these “animal athletes,” as she dubs them, can go. The tern’s annual migration spans the earth from top to bottom. 

In its 30-year lifespan, the arctic tern makes an annual pilgrimage from the Arctic Circle to the Antarctic and back–a round-trip journey of about 100,000 kilometers (62,000 miles) made longer by the fact that the bird doesn’t fly in a straight line. It is one of the longest migrations of any animal on Earth, which no one had GPS tracked before Hawkes. 

She has led a trail of firsts when it comes to animal migration studies. Hawkes was part of the first team of researchers to put trackers on sea turtles. Her research revealed that these air-breathing animals could stay submerged for up to eight hours. It prompted further investigation, and later the discovery of sea turtles’ uniquely adapted, low-oxygen-tolerant nerve systems.

Over the course of eight years, she studied bar-headed geese in Mongolia using tracking systems, another first-ever. She observed the bird’s ability to soar near the tops of Everest and engineered a simulation in her Birmingham, England lab to understand how they thrived in the low-density air. Adapting conditions to mimic an oxygen-deprived environment, she put the bird on a treadmill to assess how it managed at such altitudes. For the goose, it was effortless, Hawkes recalls.

“We’ve never found a bird that can handle altitude like these can,” Hawkes says. “They’ve got bigger lungs, and bigger hearts, and special hemoglobin, and bigger wings, and all sorts of different adaptations all the way through their bodies to make them just completely boss at getting a hold of oxygen.”

She’s also recorded basking sharks, the second-largest living fish, breaching completely out of ocean water to expose their entire four-ton bodies.  “We had one shark breach four times in 42 seconds, which is amazing,” Hawkes explains. “It might be to remove parasites, or it might play an important role in courtship,” she says, though the reasons for this behavior, just as the case for migration, are still somewhat shrouded in mystery.

Most reasons for movement are fairly straightforward, Hawkes says. Migrating for sustenance for instance, makes sense. Other patterns are less obvious. A few of Hawkes’ basking sharks will linger along the British coastline, others will swim down to Africa. “Maybe they follow a mate, or maybe they find one place and are kind of like ‘this is good’ and don’t know any better,” Hawkes hypothesizes. “Why bother going all that way if you didn’t have to? It must be worth it,” she concludes.

Through her work tracking animals on the move, Hawkes aims to expand understanding around the purpose for migration, where animals stop along their routes, and how they prepare for such lengthy journeys. For the latter question, Hawkes’ findings have surprised her. 

“With the bar-headed geese…they do nothing to prepare, nothing,” Hawkes reveals. She expected long-haul journeys would be preceded by exercise, practice, or rest to build up energy reserves, but it's not the case. 

As soon as the day lengths start to change with the seasons, birds have a cascade of hormones that gear them up for some of the longest migratory journeys, Hawkes explains. “Could you imagine being like, ‘I'm going to be in the Olympics next month, I'm going to do nothing, and then I'm just going to turn up and win?’ That's what they do.”

Not only are these impressive feats, Hawkes emphasizes that migratory routes are important. “Animals are sentinels, they tell us something about the health of our planet,” she points out. Mapping where they go helps determine foraging hotspots, like the North Atlantic Current and Evlanov Sea-basin– identified by tracking data and now a marine protected area– where Hawkes’ blue fins, sharks, and arctic terns frequent for a meal. 

Ultimately, Hawkes hopes that by sharing her wonder for animal performances, humans will further understand, appreciate, and thus respect the natural world. 

“My hope would be that at least one or two people the next time they saw something like a pigeon, they would just for a second pause and go, ‘that's cooler than I think it is.’”

This Explorer's work is funded by the National Geographic Society
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For the National Geographic Society: Natalie Hutchison is a Digital Content Producer for the Society. She believes authentic storytelling wields power to connect people over the shared human experience. In her free time she turns to her paintbrush to create visual snapshots she hopes will inspire hope and empathy.

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