Background: During long-distance foraging in almost featureless habitats desert ants of the genus Cataglyphis employ path-integrating mechanisms (vector navigation). This navigational strategy requires an egocentric monitoring of the foraging path by incrementally integrating direction, distance, and inclination of the path. Monitoring the latter two parameters involves idiothetic cues and hence is tightly coupled to the ant's locomotor behavior.
Results: In a kinematic study of desert ant locomotion performed on differently inclined surfaces we aimed at pinpointing the relevant mechanisms of estimating step length and inclination. In a behavioral experiment with ants foraging on slippery surfaces we broke the otherwise tightly coupled relationship between stepping frequency and step length and examined the animals' ability to monitor distances covered even under those adverse conditions. We show that the ants' locomotor system is not influenced by inclined paths. After removing the effect of speed, slope had only marginal influence on kinematic parameters.
Conclusion: From the obtained data we infer that the previously proposed monitoring of angles of the thorax-coxa joint is not involved in inclinometry. Due to the tiny variations in cycle period, we also argue that an efference copy of the central pattern generator coding the step length in its output frequency will most likely not suffice for estimating step length and complementing the pedometer. Finally we propose that sensing forces acting on the ant's legs could provide the desired neuronal correlate employed in monitoring inclination and step length.