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J Physiol Paris. 2004 Jan-Jun;98(1-3):259-64.

How do insects represent familiar terrain?

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  • 1Sussex Centre for Neuroscience, School of Biological Sciences, University of Sussex, Brighton BN1 9QG, UK.


We argue here that ants and bees have a piecemeal representation of familiar terrain. These insects remember no more than what is needed to sustain the separate and parallel strategies that they employ when travelling between their nest and foraging sites. One major strategy is path integration. The insect keeps a running tally of its distance and direction from the nest and so can always return home. This global path integration is enhanced by long-term memories of significant sites that insects store in terms of the coordinates (direction and distance) of these sites relative to the nest. With these memories insects can plan routes that are steered by path integration to such sites. Quite distinct from global path integration are memories associated with familiar routes. Route memories include stored views of landmarks along the route with, in some cases, local vectors linked to them. Local vectors by encoding the direction and/or distance from one landmark to the next, or from one landmark to a goal, help an insect keep to a defined route. We review experiments showing that although local vectors can be recalled by recognising landmarks, the global path integration system is independent of landmark information and that landmarks do not have positional coordinates associated with them. The major function of route landmarks is thus procedural, telling an insect what action to perform next, rather than its location relative to the nest.

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