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Views, landmarks, and routes: how do desert ants negotiate an obstacle course?

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Abstract

The Australian desert ant Melophorus bagoti often follows stereotypical routes through a cluttered landscape containing both distant panoramic views and obstacles (plants) to navigate around. We created an artificial obstacle course for the ants between a feeder and their nest. Landmarks comprised natural objects in the landscape such as logs, branches, and tussocks. Many ants travelled stereotypical routes home through the obstacle course in training, threading repeatedly the same gaps in the landmarks. Manipulations altering the relations between the landmarks and the surrounding panorama, however, affected the routes in two major ways. Both interchanging the positions of landmarks (transpositions) and displacing the entire landmark set along with the starting position of the ants (translations) (1) reduced the stereotypicality of the route, and (2) increased turns and meanders during travel. The ants might have used the entire panorama in view-based travel, or the distal panorama might prime the identification and use of landmarks en route. Despite the large data set, both options (not mutually exclusive) remain viable.

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Acknowledgments

The research was supported by grants from the Australian Research Council (DP0770300) and Macquarie University (graduate research funds and scholarships to S.S., P.S., and A.W.). We thank the CSIRO Centre for Arid Zone Research for letting us use their grounds for research, and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on the manuscript. The experiments reported in this article were conducted in compliance with the laws of Australia and the Northern Territory. The authors declare no conflict of interest.

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Correspondence to Ken Cheng.

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Wystrach, A., Schwarz, S., Schultheiss, P. et al. Views, landmarks, and routes: how do desert ants negotiate an obstacle course?. J Comp Physiol A 197, 167–179 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00359-010-0597-2

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00359-010-0597-2

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