July 03, 2006

What do you mean, "overshot"?

You know, we saw those lines of leaf-cutter ants, stalking determinedly along. But we never asked the vital question about them. So I'm thrilled to learn that Matthias Wittlinger and Harald Wolf, two German researchers, and Rudiger Wehner, a Swiss colleague, have asked that question. More than that, they have some answers too.

The vital question: how do ants measure distance, for example from a food source back to their colonies?

Well, Messrs Wittlinger, Wolf and Wehner hypothesized that they do so by counting paces. To test this, they "altered the legs on a group of ants." Some were placed on pig-bristle stilts, others had their legs amputated (ouch).

The fellows on stilts went too far. The amputees didn't go far enough. QED, or as near as you can get with ants. (One report here).

You feel for those amputees, but nevertheless, isn't that just delightful? Gotta love science.


Postscript: A reader points to this fine explanation of ant movements, including orientation and distance.

I also thought I'd point you once more to this prize-winning photograph, though for the time being, the ants involved don't appear to be in need of distance measuring mechanisms.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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