Desert ants create landmarks for navigation

Desert ants build mountains to find their way through similar Sahara terrain or the salt flats in Tunisia.

A desert ant species builds mounds and uses them as landmarks to find its way to the salt flats in the Sahara or Tunisia.

Desert ants are known for their orientation skills. They travel long distances to collect food and take it back to their colony. But these foraging trips are hard work for ants Cataglyphis fortis, living in salt flats in Tunisia. They must find thumbnail-sized entrances to their underground nests without the aid of landmarks in the form of vegetation, ridges or water features.

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High mortality rate

Zoologist Mark Naughton Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, Jena, Germany, and colleagues, C. After discovering that the mounds built by Fortis had different heights, they decided to investigate their purpose. The piles near the nests on the edges of the salt pan are barely noticeable, while those in the center grow up to 25 centimeters high. It suggests that they are important for navigation.

The researchers began tracking the insects’ locations with GPS and found that the mortality rate was high. On long journeys of more than 2 kilometers, about 20 percent of the ants did not make it home and died in the extreme heat.

The researchers monitored the ants in 16 nests. In some of these nests, they cleared the mounds near them. In other nests, researchers left the area alone. Removing mounds increases the chance that ants won’t go home by 250 to 400 percent. In almost every case, the allies of the extinct foragers quickly began to rebuild the missing structures. researchers They published their results in the journal Current Biology.

fire extinguisher

When Knaden and his team replaced the mounds with artificial markers — black cylinders the size of large fire extinguishers — they found that the ants did not reproduce them. ‘Building such a nest mound is a huge undertaking. “Hundreds of ants are building all night long,” says Knaden, “and they won’t do it if they don’t have to.” With artificial markings, desert ants took more direct routes home, just like clearing mountains.

“We’re used to finding all kinds of ways for insect hunters to use clever tricks to navigate, but I was really surprised that this was even reflected in nesting,” says the neuroscientist. Paul Graham from the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom.

The question remains how the colony will know when new identities are needed. C. Fortis colonies are based on division, so older foraging ants are responsible for building signs that younger ants need. Or it could be an initiative when younger ants see their older colony mates struggle to find their way.

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