Smells like home: Desert ants, Cataglyphis fortis, use olfactory landmarks to pinpoint the nest

Front Zool. 2009 Feb 27;6:5. doi: 10.1186/1742-9994-6-5.


Background: Cataglyphis fortis ants forage individually for dead arthropods in the inhospitable salt-pans of Tunisia. Locating the inconspicuous nest after a foraging run of more than 100 meters demands a remarkable orientation capability. As a result of high temperatures and the unpredictable distribution of food, Cataglyphis ants do not lay pheromone trails. Instead, path integration is the fundamental system of long-distance navigation. This system constantly informs a foraging ant about its position relative to the nest. In addition, the ants rely on visual landmarks as geocentric navigational cues to finally pinpoint the nest entrance.

Results: Apart from the visual cues within the ants' habitat, we found potential olfactory landmark information with different odour blends coupled to various ground structures. Here we show that Cataglyphis ants can use olfactory information in order to locate their nest entrance. Ants were trained to associate their nest entrance with a single odour. In a test situation, they focused their nest search on the position of the training odour but not on the positions of non-training odours. When trained to a single odour, the ants were able to recognise this odour within a mixture of four odours.

Conclusion: The uniform salt-pans become less homogenous if one takes olfactory landmarks into account. As Cataglyphis ants associate environmental odours with the nest entrance they can be said to use olfactory landmarks in the vicinity of the nest for homing.