Ants get schooled: Research shows ants can learn, adapt

16 February 2017

Ants have the ability to learn new skills and respond to changes in the environment despite their poor eyesight and small brains, new research from Macquarie University has found.

The study of the nocturnal bulldog ant, Myrmecia pyriformis, published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, B, tested the ability of the ants to adapt to minor modifications to their environment when they left their nests to forage.

The researchers found that immediately after some familiar trees were removed from the area surrounding the nest, the ants responded to the change by increasing the frequency of looking around and turning back to look towards the nest, rather than heading straight to their foraging tree.

“The visual world the ants were accustomed to seeing on a daily basis when they leave the nest had now suddenly changed, and they had to re-learn the visual information,” said lead author Dr Ajay Narendra from the Department of Biological Sciences.

The ants seemed to achieve this by regularly turning back and looking to capture views of the nest from different orientations.

“We did not expect that the ants would be able to detect such subtle changes in their environment. While they did not learn the modified information quickly, after several days they became the same effective and confident foragers in the new environment as they were in their previous environment,” said Dr Narendra.

Ants have a 360 degree field of view and have the ability to compare the entire panoramic scene that they currently see to the one they had memorised previously. It could be that ants memorise the visual scene of their environment and they use this to travel from the nest to their favourite tree on which they forage.

“This is the first time we have been able to modify the natural visual environment to a very minor extent and demonstrate that nocturnal ants with their low resolution vision are surprisingly good in detecting this.”

“It is remarkable that insects such as ants and bees accomplish tasks of visual navigation not only with bad eyes but also under dark conditions. These findings will help us better understand the visual sensors of nocturnal insects and also how they could improve signal to noise ratio to reliably navigate in their dimly lit 3D world,” concluded Dr Narendra.

Narendra, A. and Ramirez-Esquivel, F. Subtle changes in the landmark panorama disrupt visual navigation in a nocturnal bull ant. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, B. February 2017. doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2016.0068

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