Home > Papers from 2016 > Making your own way home

Making your own way home


Until recently, there was a very neat story regarding the way aerial and terrestrial insects measured distances. Terrestrial insects such as ants use mechanisms based on step-counting, whereas bees use optic-flow based odometry. This is often used as an example of ecological tuning (or situatedness) where the sensory system most appropriate for behavioural control is tuned to the environment. Flying bees are subject to turbulence and so distance measures based on motor output are likely to be unreliable. This is much less of a problem for ants, who can therefore rely on step-counting.
The lovely paper from Pfeffer and Wittlinger uses a unique behavioural situation to test the generality of step-counting mechanisms in ants. Some ant species are polydomous and workers ensure balanced resources by carrying inexperienced ants between nest sites. When a pair of ants are separated, the carried ant returns to the original nest it was carried from. In this paper it is shown that such carried ants do know the distance back to the nest they came from, and don’t use step-counting for odometry when trying to get back to their original nest. In fact they use optic flow. This shows that ants have two odometery mechanisms. More significantly the information from optic-flow is not available to step-counting systems. This is the opposite pattern to the compass system in ants, where information can be transferred between modalities.

Pfeffer, S. E. & Wittlinger, M. 2016 Optic flow odometry operates independently of stride integration in carried ants. Science 353, 1155-1157.

Categories: Papers from 2016
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