Australian Jack Jumper Ants Navigate Using Landmarks

Researchers have found that jack jumper ants note landmarks as they travel and this enables them to navigate their way home.

Asian Scientist (Jun. 28, 2013) – A team of researchers has found that solitary foraging jack jumper ants take mental snapshots of the terrain as they move around, allowing them to find their way home using landmarks.

Ants are known to use various methods to find their way home after foraging, most notably path integration. This is where ants record distance traveled and in what direction as they march around and then use that information to help them find their way home.

In their study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the researchers discovered that when foraging relatively close to home, jack jumper ants also note landmarks as they travel. They believe that allows them to create a mental map that leads back to their nest.

Researchers had previously found that bull ants had more difficulty finding their way home in the dark than in the light of day. This suggested they use landmarks as navigation aids.

In this new study, the researchers collected 50 jack jumper ants and moved them various distances from the nest. They then tracked the ants using differential GPS to see if they could find their way home.

The group found that at distances of 10 meters or less, the ants were able to look around them then head straight for home. In contrast, when the researchers carried the ants 100 meters from their nest, the ants were confused and attempted to use path integration to orient themselves. This suggested the ants were using landmarks to find their way home.

To add credence to their theory, the team used cameras to study the terrain in which the ants had been released; these cameras allowed the researchers to look around from the vantage point of the ants.

Doing so allowed them to very clearly see that various landmarks provided the ants sufficient information to guide their trip home. As the distance from the nest was increased, however, the team found it more and more difficult to use landmark information to create a return map.

Based on their observations, the researchers conclude that the ants do indeed use landmarks as a form of navigational aid. They note also that this simple ability far outstrips the abilities of current robots, thus jack jumper ants may serve as a model for robot builders looking to improve navigational skills in their creations.

The article can be found at: Narendra et al. (2013) Mapping The Navigational Knowledge Of Individually Foraging Ants, Myrmecia croslandi.

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Source: ANU; Photo: Bulldog Pottery/Flickr.
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