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Biol Lett. 2013 Apr 17;9(3):20130070. doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2013.0070. Print 2013 Jun 23.

Flexible weighing of olfactory and vector information in the desert ant Cataglyphis fortis.

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  • 1Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, Hans-Knoell Strasse 8, 07745 Jena, Germany.


Desert ants, Cataglyphis fortis, are equipped with remarkable skills that enable them to navigate efficiently. When travelling between the nest and a previously visited feeding site, they perform path integration (PI), but pinpoint the nest or feeder by following odour plumes. Homing ants respond to nest plumes only when the path integrator indicates that they are near home. This is crucial, as homing ants often pass through plumes emanating from foreign nests and do not discriminate between the plume of their own and that of a foreign nest, but should absolutely avoid entering a wrong nest. Their behaviour towards food odours differs greatly. Here, we show that in ants on the way to food, olfactory information outweighs PI information. Although PI guides ants back to a learned feeder, the ants respond to food odours independently of whether or not they are close to the learned feeding site. This ability is beneficial, as new food sources-unlike foreign nests-never pose a threat but enable ants to shorten distances travelled while foraging. While it has been shown that navigating C. fortis ants rely strongly on PI, we report here that the ants retained the necessary flexibility in the use of PI.

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