[ Back to EurekAlert! ] Public release date: 26-Feb-2009
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Contact: Charlotte Webber
charlotte.webber@biomedcentral.com
44-020-763-19980
BioMed Central

Desert ants smell their way home

Humans lost in the desert are well known for going around in circles, prompting scientists to ask how desert creatures find their way around without landmarks for guidance. Now research published in BioMed Central's open access journal Frontiers in Zoology shows that Desert Ants input both local smells and visual cues into their navigation systems to guide them home.

Until now researchers thought that the Desert Ant Cataglyphis fortis, which makes its home in the inhospitable salt pans of Tunisia, was a pure vision-guided insect. But Kathrin Steck, Bill Hansson and Markus Knaden from the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany used gas chromatography to verify that desert microhabitats do have unique odour signatures that can guide the ants back to the nest.

After having identified some odours of these signatures the researchers trained ants in field experiments to recognise these odours pointing to a hidden nest entrance. Ants learned to associate their nest entrance with a single odour and discriminated the training odour against non-training odours. They even picked out the training odour from a four-odour blend. The ants were less focused when faced with a blend rather than the pure scent of home, but still performed better in their search than those tested with the solvent control.

The use of environmentally derived olfactory landmarks has been shown for pigeons, while most ants rely rather on self generated pheromone trails. However Cataglyphis roams for over 100 meters in search for food in a habitat where high temperatures and changeable food locations make pheromone trails ineffective. This might be the reason, why these ants better go for stable olfactory landmarks that they learn at the nest entrance.

"We are amazed to discover that while keeping track of the path integrator and learning visual landmarks, these ants can also collect information about the olfactory world," said Knaden, who hopes to investigate the interaction between visual and olfactory information in future research.

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Notes to Editors:

1. Smells like home: Desert ants, Cataglyphis fortis, use olfactory landmarks to pinpoint the nest
Kathrin Steck, Bill S Hansson and Markus Knaden
Frontiers in Zoology (in press)

During the embargo, article available here: http://www.frontiersinzoology.com/imedia/1892332520237504_article.pdf?random=790869

After the embargo, article available at journal website: http://www.frontiersinzoology.com/

Please name the journal in any story you write. If you are writing for the web, please link to the article. All articles are available free of charge, according to BioMed Central's open access policy.

2. An image of Cataglyphis fortis is available here: http://www.biomedcentral.com/graphics/email/images/Cataglyphis.jpg

'Foraging Cataglyphis fortis: Its brain is equipped with a navigation system that uses visual as well as olfactory landmarks for homing.'

Copyright: Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, Markus Knaden

3. Frontiers in Zoology is an Open Access, peer-reviewed, online journal publishing high quality research articles and reviews on all aspects of animal life.

4. BioMed Central (http://www.biomedcentral.com/) is an STM (Science, Technology and Medicine) publisher which has pioneered the open access publishing model. All peer-reviewed research articles published by BioMed Central are made immediately and freely accessible online, and are licensed to allow redistribution and reuse. BioMed Central is part of Springer Science+Business Media, a leading global publisher in the STM sector.



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