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The Cataglyphis Mahrèsienne: 50 years of Cataglyphis research at Mahrès

  • Rüdiger WehnerEmail author
Review - History

Abstract

Every year since 1969, research groups from Zürich have spent the summer months in the barren sandy areas around the Tunisian village Mahrès to study the navigational behaviour of Cataglyphis desert ants, its sensory underpinnings, and ecophysiological settings. From the 1990s onwards, researchers from other countries were invited to join the Zürich group, so that Cataglyphis increasingly advanced to become a model organism for the study of animal navigation. Its cockpit became the focus of a dynamic research system, an ‘epistemic thing’, as modern parlance in the philosophy of science has it. Investigations aimed at the ants’ compasses and odometers, at path integration, view-based landmark guidance, and how information from these various navigational routines is combined in computing the courses to steer. In this multifaceted work, the researchers’ familiarity with the site, with Mahrès, and its local geographical and historical conditions, has been essential. The essay briefly retraces the historical development of this research system. After the system had been firmly established at the North African Mahrès site, it was extended to the ecological equivalents of Cataglyphis in other true deserts of the world, to Ocymyrmex in the Namib Desert of southern Africa, and to Melophorus in central Australia.

Keywords

Cataglyphis Insect navigation Mahrès Melophorus Ocymyrmex 

Notes

Acknowledgements

This paper is dedicated to the citizens of Mahrès. I thank the current Mayor, M. Cheniour Mohamed, for kindly providing me with information about the population of Mahrès. Moreover, this essay is to gratefully acknowledge the excellent work done over five decades by several cohorts of graduate students, who have followed me to our Tunisian study site. There they got fascinated by Cataglyphis and attracted to life in the Mahrès community. It has been an immense pleasure to cooperate with them, and it is a current pleasure to see how many of them originally educated by the Cataglyphis Mahrèsienne now hold professorships in various fields of the life sciences, where they work on insect vision, insect ecology, the physiology of the vertebrate retina, and the neuroscience of the mammalian cortex, or in fields that might be as far apart from each other as evolutionary parasitology, ecotoxicology, biomedical research, and paleoanthropology. I thank Helmut Heise for his perfect mechanical work in constructing the varied sets of technical devices used over the years in the Mahrès field experiments. Moreover, I am very grateful to Stefan Sommer for ongoing discussions during my emeritus times and his comments on the manuscript, to Thomas Heinemann for his high expertise and kind cooperation in preparing the figures, to Patric Scherer for his linguistic knowledge and advice in Arabic, and to Kevan Martin and Bernhard Ronacher for their careful look at the manuscript and their valuable suggestions. My deepest thanks go to my wife Sibylle, also a biologist, who joined me in all journeys to desert ant land, where she became a Cataglyphis (and Ocymyrmex and Melophorus) aficionada and expert, and supported me in every way imaginable. Our research on the Cataglyphis Mahrèsienne was generously supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation, the Hescheler Stiftung, the Georges und Antoine Claraz Schenkung, the Human Frontier Science Program, the German National Science Foundation, the Volkswagenstiftung, and most recently by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. I am very appreciative of this financial support received through 50 years.

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© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Brain ResearchUniversity of ZurichZurichSwitzerland

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