Journal of Comparative Physiology A

, Volume 190, Issue 1, pp 1–6 | Cite as

The ant’s estimation of distance travelled: experiments with desert ants, Cataglyphis fortis

  • S. Sommer
  • R. WehnerEmail author
Original Paper


Foraging desert ants, Cataglyphis fortis, monitor their position relative to the nest by path integration. They continually update the direction and distance to the nest by employing a celestial compass and an odometer. In the present account we addressed the question of how the precision of the ant’s estimate of its homing distance depends on the distance travelled. We trained ants to forage at different distances in linear channels comprising a nest entrance and a feeder. For testing we caught ants at the feeder and released them in a parallel channel. The results show that ants tend to underestimate their distances travelled. This underestimation is the more pronounced, the larger the foraging distance gets. The quantitative relationship between training distance and the ant’s estimate of this distance can be described by a logarithmic and an exponential model. The ant’s odometric undershooting could be adaptive during natural foraging trips insofar as it leads the homing ant to concentrate the major part of its nest-search behaviour on the base of its individual foraging sector, i.e. on its familiar landmark corridor.


Ants Cataglyphis Odometry Path integration Travel distance 



We thank Robyn Tourle for help in the field experiments and Dr Larry Abbott for helpful comments on an earlier version of the manuscript. Financial support came from the Swiss National Science Foundation (grant no. 31–61844.00) and the G. and A. Claraz Foundation.


  1. Anderson DR, Burnham KP, Thompson WL (2000) Null hypothesis testing: problems, prevalence, and an alternative. J Wildl Manage 64:912–923Google Scholar
  2. Burnham KP, Anderson DR (2001) Kullback-Leibler information as a basis for strong inference in ecological studies. Wildl Res 28:111–119CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Burnham KP, Anderson DR (2002) Model selection and multimodel inference: a practical information-theoretic approach, 2nd edn. Springer, Berlin Heidelberg New YorkGoogle Scholar
  4. Cheng K, Srinivasan MV, Zhang SW (1999) Error is proportional to distance measured by honeybees: Weber’s law in the odometer. Anim Cogn 2:11–16CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Chittka L, Williams NM, Rasmussen H, Thomson JD (1999) Navigation without vision: bumblebee orientation in complete darkness. Proc R Soc Lond Ser B 266:45–50CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Esch HE, Burns JE (1995) Honeybees use optic flow to measure the distance of a food source. Naturwissenschaften 82:38–40CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Esch HE, Zhang SW, Srinivasan MV, Tautz J (2001) Honeybee dances communicate distances measured by optic flow. Nature 411:581–583CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  8. Fechner GT (1860) Elemente der Psychophysik. Breitkopf und Härtel, LeipzigGoogle Scholar
  9. Frisch K von (1965) Tanzsprache und Orientierung der Bienen. Springer, Berlin Heidelberg New YorkGoogle Scholar
  10. Frisch K von, Kratky O (1962) Über die Beziehung zwischen Flugweite und Tanztempo bei der Entfernungsmeldung der Bienen. Naturwissenschaften 49:409–417Google Scholar
  11. Hartmann G, Wehner R (1995) The ant’s path integration system: a neural architecture. Biol Cybern 73:483–497CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Heusser D, Wehner R (2002) The visual centring response in desert ants, Cataglyphis fortis. J Exp Biol 205:585–590PubMedGoogle Scholar
  13. Mittelstaedt H (1983) The role of multimodel convergence in homing by path integration. In: Horn E (ed) Multimodel convergences in sensory systems. Fortschritte der Zoologie, vol 28. Fischer, Stuttgart, pp 197–212Google Scholar
  14. Müller M, Wehner R (1988) Path integration in desert ants, Cataglyphis fortis. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 85:5287–5290Google Scholar
  15. Müller M, Wehner R (1994) The hidden spiral: systematic search and path integration in desert ants, Cataglyphis fortis. J Comp Physiol A 175:525–530Google Scholar
  16. Ronacher B, Wehner R (1995) Desert ants Cataglyphis fortis use self-induced optic flow to measure distances travelled. J Comp Physiol A 177:21–27Google Scholar
  17. Ronacher B, Gallizzi K, Wohlgemuth S, Wehner R (2000) Lateral optic flow does not influence distance estimation in the desert ant Cataglyphis fortis. J Exp Biol 203:1113–1121PubMedGoogle Scholar
  18. Schöne H (1996) Optokinetic speed control and estimation of travel distance in walking honeybees. J Comp Physiol A 179:587–592Google Scholar
  19. Si A, Srinivasan MV, Zhang SW (2003) Honeybee navigation: properties of the visually driven ‘odometer’. J Exp Biol 206:1265–1273CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  20. Sokal RR, Rohlf FJ (1998) Biometry, 3rd edn. Freeman, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  21. Srinivasan MV, Zhang SW, Lehrer M, Collett TS (1996) Honeybee navigation en route to the goal: visual flight control and odometry. J Exp Biol 199:237–244PubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. Srinivasan MV, Zhang SW, Bidwell NJ (1997) Visually mediated odometry in honeybees. J Exp Biol 200:2513–2522PubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. Srinivasan MV, Zhang SW, Altwein M, Tautz J (2000) Honeybee navigation: nature and calibration of the “odometer”. Science 287:851–853PubMedGoogle Scholar
  24. Stevens SS (1957) On the psychophysical law. Psychol Rev 64:153–181PubMedGoogle Scholar
  25. Visscher KP, Seeley TD (1982) Foraging strategy of honeybee colonies in a temperate deciduous forest. Ecology 63:1790–1801Google Scholar
  26. Wehner R (1987) Spatial organization of foraging behavior in individually searching desert ants, Cataglyphis (Sahara desert) and Ocymyrmex (Namib desert). In: Pasteels JM, Deneubourg J-L (eds) From individual to collective behavior in social insects. Birkhäuser, Basel, pp 15–42Google Scholar
  27. Wehner R (1992) Arthropods. In: Papi F (ed) Animal homing. Chapman and Hall, London, pp 45–144Google Scholar
  28. Wehner R (2003) Desert ant navigation: how miniature brains solve complex tasks. J Comp Physiol A 189:579–588Google Scholar
  29. Wehner R, Srinivasan MV (1981) Searching behaviour of desert ants, genus Cataglyphis (Formicidae, Hymenoptera). J Comp Physiol A 142:315–338Google Scholar
  30. Wehner R, Michel B, Antonsen P (1996) Visual navigation in insects: coupling of egocentric and geocentric information. J Exp Biol 199:129–140PubMedGoogle Scholar
  31. Wohlgemuth S, Ronacher B, Wehner R (2001) Ant odometry in the third dimension. Nature 411:795–798PubMedGoogle Scholar
  32. Wohlgemuth S, Ronacher B, Wehner R (2002) Distance estimation in the third dimension in desert ants. J Comp Physiol A 188:273–281CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Zollikofer CPE (1988) Vergleichende Untersuchungen zum Laufverhalten von Ameisen (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). PhD thesis, University of ZürichGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of ZoologyUniversity of ZürichZürichSwitzerland

Personalised recommendations