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Dead reckoning in a small mammal: the evaluation of distance

Abstract

When hoarding food under infra-red light, golden hamsters Mesocricetus auratus W. return fairly directly from a feeding place to their nest site by evaluating and updating internal signals that they have generated during the previous outward journey to the feeding place. To test more specifically the animals' capacity to evaluate the linear components of the outward journey, the subjects were led from their (cone-shaped) nest to a feeding place along a detour which comprised either 2 (experiment 1) or 5 (experiment 2) segments; adjoining segments were at right angles to each other. In these conditions, the subjects remained significantly oriented towards the nest and therefore were capable of assessing translations as well as rotations during the outward journey. In experiment 3, the nest was removed after the hamsters had started the direct outward journey to the feeding place and the hamsters were rotated during the food uptake. The animals were no longer oriented towards the starting point of their journey, but nonetheless covered, along a fairly straight path, the correct homing distance, and then changed over to a circular search path. These results confirm that mammals can derive the linear components of an outward journey from self-generated signals and therefore are able to judge the homing distance without relying on cues from the environment. For a number of detour outward journeys, our data yield an unexpectedly good fit to Müller and Wehner's (1988) model of dead reckoning in ants. However, this is no longer the case when the outward journey contains an initial loop which brings the subject back to the starting point. These findings are discussed in terms of the biological significance and limitations of an approximate form of path integration.

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Séguinot, V., Maurer, R. & Etienne, A.S. Dead reckoning in a small mammal: the evaluation of distance. J Comp Physiol A 173, 103–113 (1993). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00209622

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Key words

  • Homing
  • Dead reckoning
  • Distance estimation
  • Hoarding
  • Golden hamster