Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 68, Issue 1, pp 55–62 | Cite as

Do leaf-cutter ants Atta colombica obtain their magnetic sensors from soil?

  • Andre J. Riveros
  • Darci M. S. Esquivel
  • Eliane Wajnberg
  • Robert B. SrygleyEmail author
Original Paper


How animals sense, process, and use magnetic information remains elusive. In insects, magnetic particles are candidates for a magnetic sensor. Recent studies suggest that the ant Pachycondyla marginata incorporates iron-containing particles from soil. We used leaf-cutter ants Atta colombica to test whether soil contact is necessary for developing a functional magnetic compass. A. colombica is the only invertebrate known to calculate a path-integrated home vector using a magnetic compass. Here, we show that A. colombica requires contact with soil to incorporate magnetic particles that can be used as a magnetic compass; yet, we also show that ants can biosynthesize magnetic particles. Workers from a soil-free colony ignored a 90° shift in the horizontal component of the geomagnetic field, yet oriented homeward despite the occlusion of any geocentric cues. In contrast, workers from a soil-exposed colony oriented to an intermediate direction between their true and subjective home in the shifted field. Homeward orientations under shifted fields suggest that ants calculated a path-integrated vector using proprioceptive information. Strikingly, ants from the soil-free colony also had magnetic particles; yet, as observed by ferromagnetic resonance, these particles differed from those in soil-exposed ants and were not associated with a magnetic compass sensitive to this experimental manipulation.


Homing Navigation Orientation Path integration Proprioception 



We thank Hubert Herz for allowing the use of the laboratory-maintained, soil-free colony. We thank L. Senior (USDA-ARS) for measuring the ant orientations from the video tapes. We thank J. Gaskin, S. Adamo, and two anonymous reviewers for their comments on an earlier version of this manuscript. The Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente (ANAM) granted permission to conduct the research in Panama and export ants to Brazil for physical analysis. This project was supported in part by Centro Brasileiro de Pesquisas Fisicas (CBPF) of the Ministério da Ciência, Tecnologia e Inovação (MCTI). AJR received support from National Science Foundation grant IOB-0519483 (to Wulfila Gronenberg) and from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Supplementary material

265_2013_1621_Fig4_ESM.jpg (187 kb)
Fig. S1

Representative spectra of soil exposed ants (full lines) and of the local soil at three orientations positioned 45º one from each other around the vertical (dotted lines). The acquisition parameters are the same for all ants (see Methods); numbers close to the spectra are arbitrary multiplying factors. Incomplete low field (LF) region (g > 4.3, dotted vertical line) is indicated by an arrow. The circulated region in the soil spectra indicates the low intensity features that are associated with the high field (HF) components of the soil exposed ant spectra. The g = 2.7 component is only observed in soil spectra. The vertical axis is in arbitrary units. (JPEG 186 kb)

265_2013_1621_MOESM1_ESM.tif (187 kb)
High resolution image (TIFF 186 kb)
265_2013_1621_Fig5_ESM.jpg (63 kb)
Fig. S2

Spectra of all soil free ants. The acquisition parameters are the same for all ants (see Methods). Numbers close to the spectra are arbitrary multiplying factors. Incomplete low field (LF) region (g > 4.3, dotted vertical line) is indicated by an arrow. (a) The high field (HF) component is clearly observed in the region from 2.3 to 2.6 (vertical dashed lines). (b) The LF component is easily observed and HF component falls in the geff region from 2.1 to 3.7 (vertical dashed lines). The vertical scale, in arbitrary units, is the same for (a) and (b). (JPEG 63 kb)

265_2013_1621_MOESM2_ESM.tif (63 kb)
High resolution image (TIFF 63 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg (outside the USA) 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Andre J. Riveros
    • 1
    • 2
  • Darci M. S. Esquivel
    • 3
  • Eliane Wajnberg
    • 3
  • Robert B. Srygley
    • 1
    • 4
    Email author
  1. 1.Smithsonian Tropical Research InstituteBalboaRepublic of Panama
  2. 2.Departamento de Ciencias Fisiológicas, Facultad de MedicinaPontificia Universidad JaverianaBogotaColombia
  3. 3.Coordenação de Física AplicadaCentro Brasileiro de Pesquisas FísicasRio de JaneiroBrazil
  4. 4.USDA-Agricultural Research Service, Northern Plains Agricultural Research LabSidneyUSA

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