What Makes Ants Great Navigators?

Let’s be honest: we should really be glad that ants are a little lacking in the size department, because there’s just not much else we humans are superior in.

Sure, we’ve done great things throughout history. We’ve built some pretty amazing buildings and established a countless number of civilizations. But ants have done all that, without relying on petty tools and machinery. In fact, they’ve built massive societies and underground megalopolises with their own two… mandibles.

So it’s not too far-fetched to say that anything we can do, ants can do better. Just look at our existence within a greater perspective, and you’ll start to get it. They’re more coordinated, hard working, and powerful than us. And to add insult to injury, latest research indicates that they also make better navigators, too.

Two Navigational Strategies

Imagine getting to a restaurant you’ve found on Yelp, without the help of Google Maps, or even road signs. Now imagine doing it while going backwards.

It may sound like an impossible feat, but for ants, it’s a trivial task, both forwards and in rewind.

This is thanks to their incredible ability to separate the direction they’re going from what they’re seeing! Ants can travel far away from their nests and easily find their way back, regardless of whatever obstacle that may come in their path.

But how is that so, you ask? Researchers from the University of Edinburgh asked the same question, and sought answers by planting a bunch of barriers around a desert ant nest to create a maze. They made sure the barriers didn’t impede the view of the ants, and gave them some time to get used to their surroundings.

The researchers discovered that the ants relied on two navigational strategies to route their way home:

1. Following Their Visual Memories

Here’s the deal: ants change their walking orientation depending on the size of food they have to carry. So when the ants encountered the smaller bits of cookie that the researchers have laid out on the trail, they walked forward. And when they encountered the larger bits, they dragged them while walking backward.

It turns out that the ants relied on their view and visual cues to navigate back to their nest. For one, the forward-walking ants constantly adjusted their course by analyzing their surrounding scenery, without stopping in-between!

Backward-walking ants, however, did things a little differently. They made occasional stops to rotate around the spot while carrying the food, and hastily corrected their direction based on the visual information that they absorbed.

And if the cookie pieces were too large to lug around, the ants dropped the food altogether, walked a few steps forward, peeked around, and oriented themselves before pulling once more.

Regardless, the way the ants match their progress against their memories of their visual surroundings shows that their mental capacity is far more complex than we gave them credit for. Truly remarkable cognition and planning, which we humans often find ourselves lacking in the convenience of today’s digital age!

2. Stargazing

However, the researchers weren’t fully convinced that was all there was to the versatile ants. Based on the way the ants’ visual memories worked, the researchers believed a simple peek forward would not be enough for backward-walking ants to properly navigate.

So get this: the researchers determined that the ants are also capable of navigating using the stars. In other words, they’re able to find their way by referring to the position of the sun in the sky.

The researchers confirmed this by making the ants walk through a funnel, which denied them the visual cues of their surrounding environment.

As they expected, the funnel proved to be incapable of outsmarting the super-bugs. Every time the ants were forced into the funnel, they immediately came back out, looked skyward, and effortlessly re-oriented themselves. They actually noted the location of the sun in the sky to reframe their visual memory of their route!

Ants Are Not to Be Underestimated

While their brains may be less than the size of a pinhead, ants are way smarter than we give them credit for. They can clear navigational challenges that we humans would have trouble with – much more than we’d like to admit!

So next time you find yourself hopelessly lost in a new city or town, keep calm and just relax. C’mon – if small, insignificant, pip-squeak ants can do it, so can you… right?

No pressure.


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