Desert ants look to the sky, rely on memory to navigate backward

Myrmecia piliventris

Foraging species like Cataglyphis velox and Myrmecia piliventris (shown) use celestial cues and visual memory to walk backward — helpful when dragging a big dinner home.

Ajay Narenda

Some ants are so good at navigating they can do it backward.

Researchers think that foraging ants memorize scenes in front of them to find their way back to the nest. But that strategy only works when facing forward. Still, some species have been observed trekking in reverse to drag dinner home.

To find out how the ants manage this feat, Antoine Wystrach of the University of Edinburgh and colleagues captured foraging desert ants (Cataglyphis velox) near a nest outside Seville, Spain. In a series of tests, the researchers gave the ants cookie crumbles and then released the ants at a fork in the route back to their nest.

Regardless of which direction they took, ants walking backward with cookie bits in tow maintained a straight path. The researchers suspect the ants relied on some sort of sunlight cues. Ants also appeared to peek behind themselves to check and adjust course. After making adjustments, ants maintained their new direction no matter their body orientation. Desert ants combine their celestial compass and long-term visual memories of the route to find their way home, the team concludes online January 19 in Current Biology.

Helen Thompson is the multimedia editor. She has undergraduate degrees in biology and English from Trinity University and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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