Why Desert Ants Walk Backwards

Jan 24, 2017 By Nupur V, Young Editor
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When you are traveling to a new place, isn’t it convenient to use the GPS on your phone to find the route to your destination? 

Several insects often travel to faraway places in search of food, using a different route every day. Do you ever wonder how ants find their way so easily to the uncovered food in your kitchen? They definitely don’t have a GPS helping them out.

A new finding has reported that ants use their memory and the sun to find their way around. In fact, they can find their way back home no matter what way they are facing- they could be walking forwards, backwards, or even sideways, and stick to their route.

How Ants Navigate

You may have noticed an ant carrying a rather large piece of food and walking around with it, without even looking like it is struggling. How do they do it?

Scientists studied the behavior of desert ants by giving them different-sized cookie crumbs. The ants that were given the tiny cookie crumbs had no trouble walking forward. But, the ants that were given the large cookie crumbs had to drag them across the floor to move them, which means they had to walk backwards. They observed that these desert ants would walk for a bit, then stop, drop their cookie crumb, and turn around to see where they were going!  

What makes navigation difficult is that ants don’t have good eyesight. Their retina simply captures what they see, and that is how they use their memory to find their way back home. Scientists have also found that ants depend on the Sun for their direction. When they used a mirror to reflect sunlight and confuse them, the ants lost their orientation and went in the wrong direction.

Other Findings

The female ants in the colony that do not reproduce, are called “workers” or “soldiers”, because their job is to go out and find food, and leave a trail of their scent when they do so. This way, when they return, the other ants can simply follow their scent straight to the food. 

But how do ants know how far they have to go? Some researchers believe that ants use their stride - or the length of their steps to guess the distance. But, they were not really sure about this, so an experiment was conducted. The ants were made to wear stilts on their legs which gave them a longer step -- and they ended up traveling too far and missing their destination!

Scientists believe these studies will help