The minuscule size of ants may have encouraged the popular undermining of the true potential and skill harnessed by these creatures, however, scientists are still very keen to discover the biological mechanisms behind their peculiarly fantastic behaviours. One example of this being their remarkable ability to navigate through complex terrains, and accomplishing this very frequently backwards when they find themselves carrying large items to their nest after a successful forage.

A team of scientists at the University of Edinburgh focused on this backwards travelling in the ants, that suggests that they’re not perhaps solely reliant on the visual memories alone to help guide them back to their home.

On January 19, the findings of the team’s study on desert ants were published in the scientific journal Current Biology. These ants called Cataglyphis velox living in their nest at Seville may be benefiting from utilising the visual cues in their surrounding as well as the natural light source; the Sun.

As they observed the ants carrying their target food of cookie pieces, in variable sizes, the ants showed a meticulous process to achieve this backwards journey.

Firstly the foraging ants of the nest distinctly marked with paint to visually aid their tracking. Next, they were given large pieces of cookies that they inevitably had to carry backwards, with frequent breaks to pause and look back to observe the rest of their route home, as well as accomplishing in altering their path to reach home when tested with blockades i.e. forks.

The role of the Sun was confirmed when the navigation of the ants was impaired by holding up a mirror between them and the sky. This seemed to confuse and impair their otherwise effective navigational process.

So despite their relatively smaller brain structures, the complexity of the spatial memory of ants is far greater than scientists had ever anticipated. Their ease in completing the task of travelling backwards hints at the sophisticated nature of their external spatial awareness, that is not limited to the visual cues in the landscape. Rather it is uniquely complimented with the visual aid provided by the Sun to move directionally towards their target.

Their frequent stops to turn around in between the backwards travelling behaviour may indicate the revision of their route, after which they can sufficiently understand the spatial architecture to travel.

The researchers now hope that these findings will lead to further exploration into the neural pathways in behind this and may someday even be used to enhance robots with such enhanced navigation systems.

– Palwasha Najeeb, Correspondent (Science)