Study shows desert ants use ‘optic flow’ to navigate

By |  September 13, 2016

A study published Sept. 8 in Science magazine reveals that Sahara desert ants (Cataglyphis bicolor) can navigate to and from their colonies with solely their vision, not just by counting steps to calculate how much distance they’ve traveled.

Scientists say the Saharan ants use “optic flow,” which is the apparent visual motion that you experience as you move through the world,” according to Centeye, a developer of compact vision systems for robotics and embedded platforms. It is like driving in a car and estimating distance and direction outside of the window.

To conduct the study, researchers used “blindfolds” to cover the eyes of ants.

“Experienced foragers that walked a set distance from the nest were able to return without issue, blindfolded or not, because they counted the steps it took to get to that point,” Science says. “But, as seen in the video above, interior colony workers—which only venture outside when carried by a forager to a satellite nest—were carried the same distance that their foraging counterparts walked, and were only able to get back un-blindfolded.”

The scientists were surprised by the findings, because interior workers that did not know how many steps they were away used just their sight to return. Prior to this study, it was thought that the ants of the Sahara Desert navigated mostly by counting their steps.

“Researchers think these ants’ Saharan habitat is so hazardous that they evolved two separate mechanisms—step counting and optic flow—to cope,” Science says.

This article is tagged with and posted in Ants, Crawling the Web

About the Author:

Joelle Harms is the digital media manager for PMP magazine and its parent company, North Coast Media. Harms can be reached at or 216-706-3780.

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