Context-dependent navigation in a collectively foraging species of ant, Messor cephalotes
August 1, 2013
More than 100 years of scientific research has provided evidence for sophisticated navigational mechanisms in social insects. One key role for navigation in ants is the orientation of workers between food sources and the nest. The focus of recent work has been restricted to navigation in individually foraging ant species, yet many species do not forage entirely independently, instead relying on collectively maintained information such as persistent trail networks and/or pheromones. Harvester ants use such networks, but additionally, foragers often search individually for food either side of trails. In the absence of a trail, these “off-trail” foragers must navigate independently to relocate the trail and return to the nest. To investigate the strategies used by ants on and off the main trails, we conducted field experiments with a harvester ant species, Messor cephalotes, by transferring on-trail and off-trail foragers to an experimental arena. We employed custom-built software to track and analyse ant trajectories in the arena and to quantitatively compare behaviour. Our results indicate that foragers navigate using different cues depending on whether they are travelling on or off the main trails. We argue that navigation in collectively foraging ants deserves more attention due to the potential for behavioural flexibility arising from the relative complexity of journeys between food and the nest.