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Private information conflict: Lasius niger ants prefer olfactory cues to route memory

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Foraging animals use a variety of information sources to navigate, such as memorised views or odours associated with a goal. Animals frequently use different information sources concurrently, to increase navigation accuracy or reliability. While much research has focussed on conflicts between individually learned (private) information and social information, conflicts between private information sources have been less broadly studied. Here, we investigate such a conflict by pitting route memory against associative odour cue learning in the ant Lasius niger. Ants were alternatingly trained to find a high-quality scented food source on one arm of a Y-maze, and a differently scented low-quality food source on the opposite arm. After training, ants were presented with a Y-maze in which the high- and low-quality-associated scents were presented on opposite arms than during training. The ants showed an extremely strong preferential reliance on the odour cues, with 100% of ants following the high-quality odour and thus moving towards the side associated with low-quality food. Further experiments demonstrated that ants also learn odour associations more rapidly, requiring only one visit to each odour-quality combination to form a reliable association. Side associations in the absence of odours, by contrast, required at least two visits to each side for reliable learning. While much attention has been focussed on visual route learning in insect navigation and decision-making, our results highlight the overwhelming importance of odour cues in insect path choice.

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We thank Frederic Krieger for collecting part of the data. Ken Cheng and two anonymous reviewers are thanked for providing very helpful comments to the manuscript. Also thanks to Anna-Lena Horsch, Emerenz Rosner, Stefan Ried, Julia Held, Lisa Armenia, Johannes Gössele, Philip Pervan, Michael Schachtner, Kristina Pogorelski, Andreas Lösch, Thomas Stadler, Daniel Mederer, Raphael Sedlmaier, Marie van Vugt, Sophie Große-Kathöfer, Christoph Nagler, Sabrina Zölch, Marcus Igl, Robert Zimmermann, Marc Hauber, and Lina Pedraza for gathering pilot data for this project.


FBO, SW and TJC were funded by a DFG Emmy Noether grant to TJC (Grant no. CZ 237/1-1).

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Correspondence to F. B. Oberhauser.

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Oberhauser, F.B., Schlemm, A., Wendt, S. et al. Private information conflict: Lasius niger ants prefer olfactory cues to route memory. Anim Cogn 22, 355–364 (2019).

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