Animal Cognition

, Volume 22, Issue 1, pp 35–47 | Cite as

Odometry and backtracking: social and individual navigation in group foraging desert harvester ants (Veromessor pergandei)

  • Nicola Plowes
  • Yu Du
  • Jenna V. Congdon
  • Vadim Bulitko
  • Everton S. Soares
  • Marcia L. SpetchEmail author
Original Paper


Veromessor pergandei harvester ants are group foragers which use a combination of social cues (pheromone-marked columns) and individual cues (e.g., self-generated movement, visual cues) when exploring foraging areas for resources. Upon finding food, individuals navigate back to the column, which guides their return to the nest. The direction and length of columns change between foraging bouts, and hence the end of the column (unlike the nest location) is non-stationary. We conducted displacement tests on returning foragers and present three novel findings. First, returning individual ants accurately estimate their distance from the foraging area to the end of the column. Second, ants that reached the column but only traveled a small proportion of the distance to the nest either show homeward or random orientation; random orientation was seen when the column was long. Third, ants that have traveled most of the way back to the nest along the column show backtracking when they are displaced—orienting in the direction opposite to the nest—similar to Australian desert ants Melophorus bagoti. This commonality suggests that some navigation strategies are general across species, and are utilized by ants that navigate individually or socially.


Ants Veromessor pergandei Navigation Odometer Column foraging Backtracking 



We are grateful for funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. We thank Richard Leisen and Dennis Marquis for assistance with some of the field studies, Morgan Cselinacz for assistance with editing of the paper, Cody Freas for provision of the panoramic images and for comments on the paper, and Isaac Lank, Al Denington and Philip May for assistance with the measuring grid.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

10071_2018_1218_MOESM1_ESM.docx (7.8 mb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 8033 KB)


  1. Agostinelli C, Lund U (2011) R package ‘circular’: circular statistics (version 0.4-3). Accessed July 2017
  2. Batschelet E (1981) Circular statistics in biology. Academic Press, LondonGoogle Scholar
  3. Cheng (2018) Cognition beyond representation: varieties of situated cognition in animals. Compar Cogn Behav Rev 13:1–20. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Cheng K, Narendra A, Wehner R (2005) Behavioral ecology of odometric memories in desert ants: acquisition, retention, and integration. Behav Ecol 17:227–235. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Cheng K, Narendra A, Sommer S, Wehner R (2009) Traveling in clutter: navigation in the central Australian desert ant Melophorus bagoti. Behav Process 80: 261–268 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Cheng K, Schultheiss P, Schwarz S, Wystrach A, Wehner R (2014) Beginnings of a synthetic approach to desert ant navigation. Behav Process 102: 51–61. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Couzin ID (2009) Collective cognition in animal groups. Trends Cogn Sci 13:36–43. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Legge ELG, Wystrach A, Spetch ML, Cheng K (2014) Combining sky and earth: desert ants (Melophorus bagoti) show weighted integration of celestial and terrestrial cues. J Exp Biol 217:4159–4166. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Lund U, Agostinelli C (2009) CircStats: circular statistics, from “Topics in circular Statistics” (2001). R package version 0.2-4. Accessed July 2017
  10. Narendra A, Cheng K, Sulikowski D, Wehner R (2008) Search strategies of ants in landmark-rich habitats. J Comp Phys A 194:929–938. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Plowes NJR (2012) Orientation and navigation in the column foraging desert harvester ant, Messor pergandei (Hymenoptera, Formicidae). Presentation at the IUSSI NAS 2012 Meeting in Greensboro. Accessed July 2017
  12. Plowes NJR, Hölldobler B (in prep) Orientation and navigation in the column foraging harvesting ant, Veromessor pergandei Google Scholar
  13. Plowes NJR, Johnson R, Hölldobler B (2013) Foraging behavior in the ant genus Messor (Hymenoptera: Formicidae: Myrmicinae). Myrmecol News 18:33–49Google Scholar
  14. Plowes NJR, Colella T, Johnson RA, Hölldobler B (2014a) Chemical communication during foraging in the harvesting ants Messor pergandei and Messor andrei. J Comp Phys A 200:129–137. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Plowes NJR, Ramsch K, Middendorf M, Hölldobler B (2014b) An empirically based simulation of group foraging in the harvesting ant, Messor pergandei. J Theor Biol 340:186–198. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. R (R Development Core Team) (2008) R: A language and environment for statistical computing. R Foundation for Statistical Computing, Vienna. ISBN 3-900051-07-0. Accessed July 2017
  17. Sasaki T, Biro D (2017) Cumulative culture can emerge from collective intelligence in animal groups. Nat Commun 8:15049. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Schultheiss P, Cheng K (2013) Finding food: outbound searching behavior in the Australian desert ant Melophorus bagoti. Behav Ecol 24:128–135. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Schultheiss P, Stannard T, Pereira S, Reynolds AM, Wehner R, Cheng K (2016) Similarities and differences in path integration and search in two species of desert ants inhabiting a visually rich and a visually barren habitat. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 70:1319–1329. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Wehner R, Srinivasan MV (1981) Searching behaviour of desert ants, genus Cataglyphis (Formicidae, Hymenoptera). J Comp Physiol 142:315–338. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Wystrach A, Schwarz S, Baniel A, Cheng K (2013) Backtracking behaviour in lost ants: an additional strategy in their navigational toolkit. Proc R Soc B 280:20131677. CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Life Sciences DepartmentMesa Community CollegeMesaUSA
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyUniversity of AlbertaEdmontonCanada
  3. 3.Department of Computing ScienceUniversity of AlbertaEdmontonCanada

Personalised recommendations