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Desert ant navigation: how miniature brains solve complex tasks

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Abstract

This essay presents and discusses the state of the art in studies of desert ant (Cataglyphis) navigation. In dealing with behavioural performances, neural mechanisms, and ecological functions these studies ultimately aim at an evolutionary understanding of the insect's navigational toolkit: its skylight (polarization) compass, its path integrator, its view-dependent ways of recognizing places and following landmark routes, and its strategies of flexibly interlinking these modes of navigation to generate amazingly rich behavioural outputs. The general message is that Cataglyphis uses path integration as an egocentric guideline to acquire continually updated spatial information about places and routes. Hence, it relies on procedural knowledge, and largely context-dependent retrieval of such knowledge, rather than on all-embracing geocentred representations of space.

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Acknowledgements

I am very grateful indeed to my graduate students Simone Bühlmann, David Andel, Katja Selchow and Martin Kohler for providing the data shown in Figs. 1B, 2, 7A and B, respectively, and to Dr. Ursula Menzi for her skillful cooperation in designing the figures. Financial support came from the Swiss National Science Foundation, the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP), and the G. and A. Claraz Foundation. All experiments complied with current Swiss legislation concerning animal care.

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Wehner, R. Desert ant navigation: how miniature brains solve complex tasks. J Comp Physiol A 189, 579–588 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00359-003-0431-1

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