We all know that getting from A to B can be a slog, but spare a thought for the animals that cover thousands of miles each year in pursuit of food, shelter and mates. Many of these trips make Frodo's journey to Mordor look like an afternoon stroll.

It is tricky to pin down the animal that makes the longest journey, for two reasons.

First, some animals make their journeys in stages, so you can get bogged down in arguments about exactly what constitutes a "journey". Is it more impressive to do 2,000 miles in 2 runs, or 1,500 miles continuously? Exactly.

Secondly, travelling on land is not the same as travelling at sea, or in the air. For example, aerial and marine animals can get a helping hand from strong winds and currents, while land animals do everything under their own steam.

So the ultimate traveller is partly a matter of opinion. But these are the contenders. Let's start in the sea.

Whales clock up some serious mileage on their seasonal migrations. Grey whales were previously thought to be the record holders, but their title was snatched in 2007 by humpback whales. A study tracked them travelling at least 5,160 miles (8,299 km) between Costa Rica and Antarctica. This is the longest migration of any mammal.

The annual movement of caribou 2,982 miles across North America is the current record holder for terrestrial migration

However, the whales have been topped by a fish: specifically, the great white shark. One female – delightfully, nicknamed "Nicole" – was recorded swimming around 11,100 km (6900 miles) from South Africa to western Australia, and then back again within nine months.

Even more impressively, a female leatherback turtle was similarly followed on a journey of 12,744 miles (20,500 km) from its Indonesian breeding ground to feed off the Pacific coast of the US by researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, US.

A huge variety of lifeforms in the ocean follow seasonal patterns of movement, but some cover great distances daily. These journeys take place at night as plankton and fish move vertically from the safety of the deep ocean to feed nearer the surface. But tracking tiny sea creatures is a big challenge. Scientists investigating the phenomenon are hoping sound can help them understand these underwater commuters.

What about land animals?

On land, wet and dry seasons prompt the looping 1,800-mile (3,000km) mass migrations of blue wildebeest in East Africa.

That is an impressive trip, but the annual movement of caribou 2,982 miles (4800km) across North America is the current record holder for terrestrial migration according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

The ruby-throated hummingbird has an estimated flight range of around 1,400 miles

Yet these journeys are naturally restricted where the land meets the sea. For ultimate travel freedom, you need to take to the wing.

One of the most visually appealing migrations is that of monarch butterflies, which fly 2,500 miles (4,000km) from Mexico to Canada, and back each year. Similarly, in exceptional summers painted lady butterflies can travel from the deserts of north Africa to the Arctic Circle on a round trip of 9,300 miles (15,000km).

The appropriately-named globe skimmer dragonfly is considered the insect with the longest migration route, possibly exceeding 11,100 miles (18,000km) as they travel from India to east Africa and back. But like the butterflies, these insects are ephemeral and cannot withstand the entirety of such journeys. Instead, the full annual trek is covered by successive generations.

When it comes to epic journeys as individuals, birds are the ultimate champions.

Even the smallest species are capable of magnificent feats. For example, the ruby-throated hummingbird has an estimated flight range of around 1,400 miles (2,200km) according to a 2016 study of its autumn migration between the eastern US and Central America. Not bad for a bird that weighs less than a nickel (5g).

The entire annual journey of a baueri bar-tailed godwit is about 30,000km [18,500 miles]

At the other end of the scale, the wandering albatross – arguably the biggest flying animal on Earth – can cover more than 9,000 miles (5,500km) in a single trip. These birds can easily beat Phileas Fogg's challenge: one was tracked circumnavigating the globe in just 46 days.

This is largely thanks to their unique cruise control. Using a process known as dynamic soaring, the albatrosses travel using much less energy than wing-beating flight, making long distances a doddle.

In terms of furious flapping, though, the bar-tailed godwit is the one to watch – or satellite tag.

"The entire annual journey of a baueri bar-tailed godwit is about 30,000km [18,500 miles]," explains US Geological Survey biologist Lee Tibbetts. "This journey is completed in three non-stop flights over the course of about 20 days of flying."

"The three flights are from non-breeding areas in New Zealand or eastern Australia to staging areas in Asia, from Asia to breeding areas in Alaska, and then from Alaska back to New Zealand," says Tibbetts. "The longest of these flight legs is the one from Alaska to New Zealand and the record for migration distance of it is 11,800km [7,300 miles]."

We are all wondering if long-haul migrants can survive without intact staging areas where they can fatten up

Tibbetts and her colleagues are studying the migration routes of bar-tailed godwits, amid concerns for the future of these long-distance fliers.

"The migration strategy of the bar-tailed godwit only works if their stopover areas can provide enough fuel for their long flights… That is why there is so much recent concern over the destruction and degradation of staging sites in Asia and changes to wetlands and mudflats worldwide from climate change." 

"We are all wondering if long-haul migrants can survive without intact staging areas where they can fatten up enough to fly on and to breed. Early indications are that the birds are not adapting fast enough, as measured in survival rates and declining population sizes," she warns.

Similar cycles of feeding and breeding fuel the world's longest migrations. Two in particular put all other air-mile records in the shade.

First is the figure-eight route of the sooty shearwater as it travels up to 40,000 miles (64,300km) a year between breeding grounds in New Zealand and feeding sites as far north as Alaska. Researchers have suggested that the birds are helped on their way by global wind patterns.

The birds had witnessed midsummer in both hemispheres

Then, in 2011, scientists fitted trackers to Arctic terns nesting in the Netherlands. When they collected the data loggers a year later, they made an astonishing discovery about where the terns had flown for a break from the winter weather.

The average total migration distance was more than 30,000 miles (48,700km) from Europe to Antarctica. The birds had witnessed midsummer in both hemispheres, and totalled an average of 55,900 miles (90,000km) travel outside of the breeding season to do it.

Richard Phillips of the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, UK is a member of the team that revealed this incredible journey. He explains that the seasonal availability of resources is likely to be driving the terns' epic migration.

"The short answer must be that the benefits outweigh the costs," he says. "Here, they regain body condition and replace worn plumage in preparation for the next breeding season."

But a puzzle remains. Not all Arctic terns migrate these huge distances, with some staying closer to their own pole.

The average total migration distance was more than 30,000 miles from Europe to Antarctica

"It's intriguing that the Dutch terns migrated so far to the east, whereas birds from Greenland and Iceland travel considerably shorter distances," says Phillips.

"There may be a founder effect, [for example:] Arctic terns in the Netherlands are descended from initial colonists that were longer-distance migrants."

"Or there may be selection for a more easterly migration strategy because the additional costs of flying further are offset by the advantages of avoiding competition from the large numbers of birds from other populations that winter in the Weddell Sea."

It is not only birds that nest in the Netherlands that have a love of long distances. In June 2016, researchers from Newcastle University in the UK revealed evidence of an arctic tern flying from the Farne Islands off the Northumberland coast to Antarctica, extending this record-breaking migration to 59,600 miles (96,000km).

That is a long way to go to beat the crowds at the beach.

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