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Ant odometry in the third dimension


Desert ants (Cataglyphis) are renowned for their ability to perform large-scale foraging excursions and then return to the nest by path integration. They do so by integrating courses steered and the distances travelled into a continually updated home vector1. Whereas the angular orientation is based on skylight cues2, how the ants gauge the distances travelled has remained largely unclear3,4. Furthermore, almost all studies on path integration in Cataglyphis5,6, as well as in spiders7,8, rodents9, and humans10,11, have aimed at understanding how the animals compute homebound courses in the horizontal plane. Here, we investigate for the first time how an animal's odometer operates when a path integration task has to be accomplished that includes a vertical component. We trained Cataglyphis ants within arrays of uphill and downhill channels, and later tested them on flat terrain, or vice versa. In all these cases, the ants indicated homing distances that corresponded not to the distances actually travelled but to the ground distances; that is, to the sum of the horizontal projections of the uphill and downhill segments of the ants' paths.

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Figure 1: The ant's odometer does not record the distance actually travelled along an uphill–downhill path but rather the horizontal projection of that path (that is, the ground distance).
Figure 2: In asymmetrical arrays of uphill and downhill segments ants also use the ground distances.

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We thank H. Gansner for her help in running the experiments and the members of the Zurich–Maharès crew for their co-operation in the field. We further thank H. Heise for the construction of the channel arrays and U. Menzi and H. Michel for their help in designing the figures and preparing the manuscript. Financial support came from the Swiss National Science foundation and the G. & A. Claraz foundations, grants to R.W.

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Correspondence to Bernhard Ronacher.

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Wohlgemuth, S., Ronacher, B. & Wehner, R. Ant odometry in the third dimension. Nature 411, 795–798 (2001).

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