Bees, wasps and ants--so-called central-place foragers--need potent homing strategies to return to their nest. Path integration and view-based landmark guidance are the key strategies for the ants' navigation. For instance, they memorise different views in a sequence (sequential memory) but also have a step counter that informs them about the covered distance during each foraging trip (odometer). The sequential memory and the odometer information can act as contextual cues during travel for retrieving the appropriate stored view. When and which cue is used at different stages and lengths of the foraging trips is still unknown. In this study, we examined how the Australian desert ant Melophorus bagoti uses sequential memory and odometric information to retrieve visual memories. Using a set-up made out of channels and two-choice boxes (Y-mazes), we demonstrate first that M. bagoti foragers are able to learn and discriminate a variety of visual stimuli in a sequence of views along the inbound trip back to the nest. We then forced the homing ants to encounter a fixed sequence of two visual patterns during their inbound trips. By manipulating the position and distance of the visual stimuli and decision boxes, we could set the two contextual cues (sequential memory and odometer) into conflict. After the short 4-m outbound distance, a preference for odometric information as a contextual cue was found, but after the long 8-m outbound distance, ants relied primarily on their sequential memory retrieval. Odometer precision deteriorates with increasing travel distance, and accordingly, our findings imply that desert ants may be relying on the most reliable contextual cue for retrieving visual memories.
© Springer-Verlag 2011