Home > Papers from 2013 > How does recent experience influence search in ants?

How does recent experience influence search in ants?

A common metaphor is to describe a navigating ant as having a “navigational toolkit” at its disposal. Path Integration, learnt visual cues and systematic search can all be used and the robust navigational performance of ants depends on the co-ordinated application of these “tools”. Here, Wystrach et al. describe a really exciting new behaviour, which highlights an interesting way in which these tools interact with each other. Ordinarily, if you allow an ant to run off its entire path integrated home vector before releasing it at a totally unfamiliar place then she will be lost and will search randomly. However, most experiments of this type have been performed with ants from featureless environments. With the Australian desert ant Melophorus bagoti, that lives in a visually rich environment, Wystrach et al captured zero vector ants and released them at an unfamiliar site. They found, to their surprise, that ants did not show the random bearings characterisic of search, rather their bearings were biased in the nest-feeder direction, i.e. the opposite to the direction they had just travelled. A second group of ants were allowed to run the off their home vector by twice running along the first half of their route. Unlike the first group, these ants showed no bias and their bearings were random as would be expected for systematic search. So why the difference? Well, a series of tests show that it is the recent experience of the visual surroundings near the nest that lead to the backtracking behaviour. So, ants that find themselves in unfamiliar terrain, but after they have recently seen familiar views of the world from near the nest, will backtrack because they are likely to be beyond the nest rather than short of the nest. So a nice interaction between different tools in the toolkit leads to an adaptive response.

Antoine Wystrach, Sebastian Schwarz, Alice Baniel, and Ken Cheng (2013) Backtracking behaviour in lost ants: an additional strategy in their navigational toolkit. Proc. R. Soc. B doi:10.1098/rspb.2013.1677

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