Landmarks or panoramas: what do navigating ants attend to for guidance?

Front Zool. 2011 Aug 27;8:21. doi: 10.1186/1742-9994-8-21.


Background: Insects are known to rely on terrestrial landmarks for navigation. Landmarks are used to chart a route or pinpoint a goal. The distant panorama, however, is often thought not to guide navigation directly during a familiar journey, but to act as a contextual cue that primes the correct memory of the landmarks.

Results: We provided Melophorus bagoti ants with a huge artificial landmark located right near the nest entrance to find out whether navigating ants focus on such a prominent visual landmark for homing guidance. When the landmark was displaced by small or large distances, ant routes were affected differently. Certain behaviours appeared inconsistent with the hypothesis that guidance was based on the landmark only. Instead, comparisons of panoramic images recorded on the field, encompassing both landmark and distal panorama, could explain most aspects of the ant behaviours.

Conclusion: Ants navigating along a familiar route do not focus on obvious landmarks or filter out distal panoramic cues, but appear to be guided by cues covering a large area of their panoramic visual field, including both landmarks and distal panorama. Using panoramic views seems an appropriate strategy to cope with the complexity of natural scenes and the poor resolution of insects' eyes. The ability to isolate landmarks from the rest of a scene may be beyond the capacity of animals that do not possess a dedicated object-perception visual stream like primates.