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So animals will migrate for many different reasons and I wondered if humans could take a species (example:rabbits) that doesn't migrate, and somehow make it develop a yearly migration pattern without the intervention of humans.

How could humans plant yearly migration into the genetic memory of a species?

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    $\begingroup$ You mean how would we figure out what to change or how we'd go about changing whatever we have to? Because AFAIK we don't yet know how that information is encoded, and so we don't even know if this would be possible with our current tools. $\endgroup$
    – biziclop
    May 25, 2023 at 13:49
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    $\begingroup$ Selective breeding? $\endgroup$
    – fafo
    May 25, 2023 at 17:11
  • $\begingroup$ This sounds like the geas from Halo. You may want to look into that concept. $\endgroup$ May 29, 2023 at 5:12

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I think it can. Selective breeding is used to alter animals since early prehistory.

Migration is an evolutionary adaptation. A species may adapt to cope with winter conditions in place like rabbits or to migrate. Planting behavior that is not beneficial for survival most likely would make the species extinct relatively fast so it better to benefit them in the long run.

Rabbits would move if there is notable seasonal difference in food availability between two relatively close places. Create such difference, monitor the rabbits, find those that move faster and farther, catch them, use selective breeding. While you at it you can also try to get rid from adaptations beneficial for survival in place (e.g. thick winter coat, large fat reserves).

Keep it up long enough, get yourself a migrating rabbit.

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You want your rabbits to migrate. Okay, let's copy and paste some migration genes from a migrating species, Jurassic Park-style. We're too preoccupied with worrying about whether we can do this to worry about whether we should do this. (Never mind how we can identify which genes account for migration. If you can answer that question without waving your hands, you're in for an illustrious career in the biotech world.)

What species should we pick? Monarch butterflies, garter snakes, and Canada geese are all lovely creatures, but who knows what such a large genetic gap might do to our little hoppers. Ungulates and lagomorphs are both scrotiferous, so let's pick the smallest migrating ungulate we can find. Assuming you're in North America, the pronghorn is probably your best option.

So you graft some pronghorn genes into your rabbit DNA. Each year, your pronghorn rabbits migrate some 100 miles across Idaho. They're a bit larger than your usual rabbit, and they're much faster. And maybe they carry some other pronghorn characteristics that you weren't expecting.

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At least they aren't eating your park visitors and unexpectedly breeding. I mean, they're rabbits. It's your own fault if you didn't expect them to breed.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for the jackelope picture. I first saw a "stuffed" jackelope in South Dakota on a trip with my family when I was in grade school. It was tough for me to decide which was more unlikely, the jackelope or Mt. Rushmore. $\endgroup$
    – Boba Fit
    May 25, 2023 at 20:33
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    $\begingroup$ Mt. Rushmore and jackalopes have a lot in common. They're both real. Mt. Rushmore was born a mountain and became Mt. Rushmore when a host of small organisms attacked its face. Jackalopes are born rabbits and become jackalopes when a host of Shope papilloma virus attack their faces. $\endgroup$
    – skeep
    May 25, 2023 at 23:48
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Selective breeding is possible, but it certainly won't be easy.

Consider the border collie dog. Some would claim that they have an instinctive desire to herd things. Apparently, even without training, they will try to herd any moving object of about the right size. Groups of children, geese, soccer balls, other dogs, the border collie gets out there and tries to push them together.

Dogs have been domesticated since about 23K years ago. Sheep about 10K years ago. So it is reasonable that dogs began to be selected for doing things around sheep that were helpful about 10K years ago. In that time we have a few varieties of dog that show helpful activity with regard to sheep.

So it would seem that it is possible to produce at least some measure of instinctual behavior through selective breeding.

Rabbits are not currently migratory. Their movements are not adapted to long distances, but rather short bursts of extreme speed and agility. Hippity-hop away from something trying to eat them, and down their burrow to hide.

So to produce a migratory rabbit would be a challenge. You would have to selectively breed both for long distance running and for the proclivity to want to go south in the winter. It means not only do you need to make changes in brain structure but also in their legs and metabolism. You need a critter than can operate at a medium exertion level for many hours a day for some weeks.

So you could apply some scientific measurements. Select rabbits that had the closest to the correct metabolism. Select rabbits with legs a little less adapted to hopping and sprinting and more adapted to "jogging." Run them on test runs and find the ones that make it, say, 5 km. Then 10 km. Then 20 km. And so on.

Then start selecting for rabbits that show up at a given location at a given time of year. That's going to be a challenge because you need to have the rabbits run loose through whatever terrain happens to be around. Let them loose here and go over there and catch them. Maybe you get a truck load of radio pingers to track them. The ones that get closest to the destination get picked up and permitted to have babies. The rest go "to live on a farm somewhere." (Heh heh.) Lather-rinse-repeat, gradually increasing the distances between the start and end, and also including the return after winter is over. And you probably want to move (or start a restaurant with) the rabbits not in your program that might be hanging around.

The progress would be quite difficult to predict. That is because it will depend on mutation, which is to some extent random. Plus, you will be building in the instincts required one neuron at a time so-to-speak. You randomly get a brain config that tells the rabbit to go south 50 km, and then you have to find the sucker before a hawk or a coyote does. Migration is a complicated thing to do by instinct, requiring timing, direction, and overall distance. And the requirement to get some extra body fat before leaving. And the previously mentioned metabolism changes. This is likely to require a bunch of mutations that have to be connected in a useful fashion. It is extremely difficult to predict how long this process might take.

There are some species of rodents that are migratory. Lemmings for example. Possibly if you can do some gene splicing, you can steal some migratory tendencies from lemmings and do a transfer. That might give you a big advance.

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    $\begingroup$ Of course, the problem is that the thing you are trying to selectively breed for reduces the species' ability to survive enormously - the migrating rabbits far from their burrows will be easily eaten by the hawks and coyotes you mention while the ones that hop quickly into their burrows will survive and breed. Which means that without changing the entire predator environment that the rabbits exist in, the effort is doomed. +1 for a comprehensive answer. $\endgroup$ May 25, 2023 at 22:17

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