Ants use sun and memories to guide their backwards walk home

Ants use sun and memories to guide their backwards walk home
Myrmecia piliventris ant returning to its nest while dragging an earwig backwards. Canberra, Australia. Credit: Ajay Narendra

They are famed for their highly developed work ethic ... now a study shows ants' navigational skills are more sophisticated than was previously thought.

Scientists have revealed how the insects - which walk backwards when carrying heavy loads of food - use the sun's position and of their surroundings to guide them home.

Ants were known to use both processes but, until now, these were assumed to be two separate reflexes that required to be facing in their direction of travel.

Instead, scientists have shown that ants walking backwards will occasionally look behind them to check their surroundings, and use this information to set a course relative to the sun's position.

In this way, the insects can maintain their course towards the nest regardless of which way they are facing, the team found.

The findings suggest ants can understand spatial relations in the external world, not just relative to themselves.

The surprisingly flexible and robust navigational behaviour displayed by ants could inspire the development of novel computer algorithms - step-by-step sets of operations - to guide robots.

An international team of scientists, including researchers at the University of Edinburgh, studied a colony of in Seville to see how the insects navigate when transporting different-sized pieces of food.

Ants use sun and memories to guide their backwards walk home
A forager ants of the species Cataglyphis velox. Seville, Spain. Credit: Michael Mangan & Hugh Pastoll

Although they usually walk forward when carrying small pieces of food, ants often walk backwards to drag larger items to their nest.

The team sunk barriers into the ground to create a one-way route to the nest. They then gave ants either a small or large piece of cookie, and observed how they made their way home.

Previous research has shown that ants walking forwards find their way by comparing what they see in front of them with visual memories of the route.

This video shows a navigating ant of the species Melophorus bagoti, which is a classic species for the study of ant navigation (although not the one used in this specific study). The homing ant is running forward with a small piece of cookie in the jaw illustrating their ability to navigate individually. Credit: Antoine Wystrach.

The team found that ants traveling backwards instead use the sun's position in the sky to guide them.

Researchers observed that ants set off in the wrong direction when a mirror was used to alter their perception of the sun's location.

To ensure they stay on course, backward-walking ants also routinely drop what they are carrying and turn around. They do this to compare what they see with their visual memories of the route, and correct their direction of travel if they have wandered off course.

Future studies could help to determine the interplay between different regions in the ant brain that enables the insects to use and combine different forms of navigation, the team says.

This video shows a navigating ant of the species Melophorus bagoti, which is a classic species for the study of ant navigation (although not used in this specific study). This individual is homing backward while holding a piece of a roasted insect; wind makes the task even more difficult. The ant manages to rotate and pursue its course forward, an illustration of their ability to maintain a direction of travel independently of their body orientation. Credit: Antoine Wystrach.

The study, published in the journal Current Biology, was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. The research was carried out in collaboration with scientists at the University of Lincoln, Australian National University, and the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).

Professor Barbara Webb, of the University of Edinburgh's School of Informatics, said: "Ants have a relatively tiny brain, less than the size of a pinhead. Yet they can navigate successfully under many difficult conditions, including going backward. Understanding their behaviour gives us new insights into brain function, and has inspired us to build robot systems that mimic their functions."

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More information: Current Biology, Schwarz and Mangan et al.: "How Ants Use Vision When Homing Backward" … 0960-9822(16)31466-X , DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2016.12.019
Journal information: Current Biology

Citation: Ants use sun and memories to guide their backwards walk home (2017, January 19) retrieved 6 August 2020 from
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