Background: Even on short routes, ants can be guided by multiple visual memories. We investigate here the cues controlling memory retrieval as wood ants approach a one- or two-edged landmark to collect sucrose at a point along its base. In such tasks, ants store the desired retinal position of landmark edges at several points along their route. They guide subsequent trips by retrieving the appropriate memory and moving to bring the edges in the scene toward the stored positions.
Results: The apparent width of the landmark turns out to be a powerful cue for retrieving the desired retinal position of a landmark edge. Two other potential cues, the landmark's apparent height and the distance that the ant walks, have little effect on memory retrieval. A simple model encapsulates these conclusions and reproduces the ants' routes in several conditions. According to this model, the ant stores a look-up table. Each entry contains the apparent width of the landmark and the desired retinal position of vertical edges. The currently perceived width provides an index for retrieving the associated stored edge positions. The model accounts for the population behavior of ants and the idiosyncratic training routes of individual ants.
Discussion: Our results imply binding between the edge of a shape and its width and, further, imply that assessing the width of a shape does not depend on the presence of any particular local feature, such as a landmark edge. This property makes the ant's retrieval and guidance system relatively robust to edge occlusions.