A Sense of Location: The Mental Map
An Internal Rand McNally

1-2 periods

drawing materials


Overview: Students consider how mental maps of geographic landmarks can help migrating animals stay on the correct course.

How do migrating animals manage to find their way to wintering or breeding grounds that may be thousands of miles away? Scientists are just beginning to understand how some animals' map and compass systems might work together. For instance, scientists think that monarch butterflies may use the angle of the sun along the horizon combined with their internal body clock to maintain their flight path. Some birds are believed to be sensitive to the Earth's magnetic field. Research also suggests that many animals seem to memorize (or instinctively recognize) landmarks and the compass bearings that connect them.

Landmarks can be seen (the ocean, a mountain range, a bend in a river, one of the Great Lakes), heard (ocean surf, deep sounds), felt (prevailing wind direction), and even smelled (unique smells in a river).

Laying the Groundwork
Ask students how they think animals find their way when migrating. Accept all answers at this point. Ask, How do you find your way home from school (or elsewhere)? Do you use a map? Use their responses as a springboard for this activity.


  1. Ask students to visualize a mental map of the route to their homes. Ask, What landmarks do you remember? How do you know when and where to turn? Then have them draw maps of their routes home and include all important landmarks.

  2. Divide the class into pairs. Taking turns, one student should describe his or her mental map while the partner attempts to draw it. When each partner has had a turn, they should exchange drawings. Ask, How close was your drawing to your partner's original map?

  3. Using a topographical map of your region, prompt students to discuss important landmarks that migratory animals might use as they pass through your part of the world (this could include mountains, rivers, stretches of forest, sounds of the ocean).

  4. Finally, give students these directions: Choose one of the Journey North migratory species. Draw a map that extends from its wintering grounds to its summering grounds. Include major landmarks that you think could be important to the animal. (You can have older students give the compass bearings that connect these landmarks.) Think about the senses that might be important to your selected animal on its journey.

Making Connections — Discussion and Journaling Questions

  • Was it difficult to make a mental map of the route to your home? What makes it easy or difficult to follow someone else's directions?
  • Which sense is the most important for creating your mental map? Why?
  • Which senses do you think are most important to other animals? Give examples.
  • Geographic clues are just one of the means some animals use to stay on track during their migration. What other types of clues or instincts do you think they might use? How could we find out?

Have students conduct research on this last question, or share the background information with them.

Digging Deeper

Check that students understand that mental maps of landmarks are one of the ways in which some migratory animals stay on course.

Geography Standards

How to use mental maps to organize information about people, places, and environments.