New research published in the journal Current Biology has uncovered how ants and other insects are able to avoid traps such as predators and obstacles along a specific route using their memory. While it was previously understood that they could use pheromone trails to navigate, this is the first time a study has found ants correcting their routes to avoid peril.
With over 12,500 known species in the ant family Formicidae, ants are typically all very small but live in nests with a colony, which can range from a few dozen members to millions. They’re known master navigators who use complex trails of pheromones to map their environment and find their way home.
A new study investigating navigating ants discovered that beyond pheromone trails, ants are able to alter their learned routes based on information gathered in visual memories. The adaptive behavior enables them to avoid previously encountered traps in the form of pitfalls or predators.
Carried out by animal behavior expert Antoine Wystrach of the University of Toulouse, in France, and colleagues, the experiment involved trapping desert ants by interrupting their route home with a slipper pit trap. They used two species for the study, Melophorus bagoti from Australia and Cataglyphis fortis from the Sahara.
The first time the unsuspecting ants came across the pitfall, they would land in the trap but be able to get out again via a twig bridge. The second time they encountered the same trap, they rerouted their path to avoid the danger. Some ants were observed stopping to scan the path before taking a safe route around the trap, showing an incredible ability to correct past mistakes by altering their behavior the second time they encountered it. The capacity for change demonstrates an evidence-based mistake-correcting mechanism that many of us could stand to learn from in our love lives.
The researchers suggest that this route correcting behavior demonstrates that ants are able to retrace their movements a few seconds before a dangerous event and edit their internal map accordingly. The discovery that ants can link visual cues with negative experiences allowing them to memorize potentially dangerous routes provides further insight into the complex navigational skills of these tiny animals.