The Science of Nature

, 104:82 | Cite as

Underground anemotactic orientation in leaf-cutting ants: perception of airflow and experience-dependent choice of airflow direction during digging

  • Florian HalbothEmail author
  • Flavio Roces
Original Paper


Air exchange between the large nests of Atta vollenweideri leaf-cutting ants and the environment strongly relies on a passive, wind-induced ventilation mechanism. Air moves through nest tunnels and airflow direction depends on the location of the tunnel openings on the nest mound. We hypothesized that ants might use the direction of airflow along nest tunnels as orientation cue in the context of climate control, as digging workers might prefer to broaden or to close tunnels with inflowing or outflowing air in order to regulate nest ventilation. To investigate anemotactic orientation in Atta vollenweideri, we first tested the ants’ ability to perceive air movements by confronting single workers with airflow stimuli in the range 0 to 20 cm/s. Workers responded to airflow velocities ≥ 2 cm/s, and the number of ants reacting to the stimulus increased with increasing airflow speed. Second, we asked whether digging workers use airflow direction as an orientation cue. Workers were exposed to either inflow or outflow of air while digging in the nest and could subsequently choose between two digging sites providing either inflow or outflow of air, respectively. Workers significantly chose the side with the same airflow direction they experienced before. When no airflow was present during initial digging, workers showed no preference for airflow directions. Workers developed preferences for airflow direction only after previous exposure to a given airflow direction. We suggest that experience-modified anemotaxis might help leaf-cutting ants spatially organize their digging activity inside the nest during tasks related to climate control.


Leaf-cutting ants Anemotaxis Orientation Experience Airflow Nest digging 



We thank Karin Moll for the drawing of the leaf-cutting ant. Thanks also to Adrienne Gerber-Kurz and Annette Laudahn for taking care of the ant colony and to Johannes Scheibe and Steffen Pielström for helpful comments on this project. We also thank the editor and three anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful comments that helped to improve the manuscript.


Florian Halboth was supported by a grant of the German Excellence Initiative to the Graduate School of Life Sciences (GSLS), University of Würzburg.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Behavioral Physiology and Sociobiology, BiocenterUniversity of WürzburgWürzburgGermany

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