Species-specific differences in the fine structure of learning walk elements in Cataglyphis ants

J Exp Biol. 2017 Jul 1;220(Pt 13):2426-2435. doi: 10.1242/jeb.158147.


Cataglyphis desert ants are famous navigators. Like all central place foragers, they are confronted with the challenge to return home, i.e. relocate an inconspicuous nest entrance in the ground, after their extensive foraging trips. When leaving the underground nest for the first time, desert ants perform a striking behavior, so-called learning walks that are well structured. However, it is still unclear how the ants initially acquire the information needed for sky- and landmark-based navigation, in particular how they calibrate their compass system at the beginning of their foraging careers. Using high-speed video analyses, we show that different Cataglyphis species include different types of characteristic turns in their learning walks. Pirouettes are full or partial rotations (tight turns about the vertical body axis) during which the ants frequently stop and gaze back in the direction of the nest entrance during the longest stopping phases. In contrast, voltes are small walked circles without directed stopping phases. Interestingly, only Cataglyphis ant species living in a cluttered, and therefore visually rich, environment (i.e. C. noda and C. aenescens in southern Greece) perform both voltes and pirouettes. They look back to the nest entrance during pirouettes, most probably to take snapshots of the surroundings. In contrast, C. fortis inhabiting featureless saltpans in Tunisia perform only voltes and do not stop during these turns to gaze back at the nest - even if a set of artificial landmarks surrounds the nest entrance.

Keywords: Celestial compass; Central place forager; Panorama snapshot; Spatial orientation; Vector navigation; Visual landmark.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Ants / physiology*
  • Greece
  • Learning
  • Species Specificity
  • Tunisia
  • Walking