Studying the ontogeny of navigational behavior in desert ants

In his review article “Neuroplasticity in desert ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) – importance for the ontogeny of navigation” published in Myrmecological News in January 2019, Wolfgang Rössler highlights recent progress in understanding the behavioral and neuronal plasticity (MNB: variation in behavior) that underlies the ontogeny of visually based navigation in Cataglyphis desert ants. Comparative behavioral experiments in the natural habitats of the ants were combined with laboratory experiments on neuronal plasticity in the ants’ brains. The following photographs give some impressions of the field experiments with two Cataglyphis species, one inhabiting featureless saltpans in Tunisia (Menzel Chaker) and one living in pine forests of Schinias National Park near Athens, Greece.

A Photoblog contribution compiled by Wolfgang Rössler with photographs by Pauline N. Fleischmann and Robin Grob.

Sunset over Mahares, a small coastal Town in Tunisia south of Sfax and the base for our field studies in a saltpan near Menzel Chaker inhabited by Cataglyphis fortis. (© Pauline N. Fleischmann)

Field work in a saltpan near Menzel Chaker. Robin Grob watching Cataglyphis fortis from distance using a camera system installed above the nest entrance. The high-resolution video-camera system is started via remote control while watching (unmarked) naïve ants coming out of the nest entrance to take movies from ants performing learning walks close to the nest entrance. (© Wolfgang Rössler)

To distinguish age-cohorts or to be able to record the behavioral ontogeny of individuals, ants are marked on their gaster or mesosoma using special paint and a color code. Cataglyphis fortis feeding on a piece of water melon. (© Pauline N. Fleischmann)

Predators can be everywhere – a paint-marked Cataglyphis fortis, unfortunately, was killed during the experiment by a jumping spider. (© Pauline N. Fleischmann)

Pauline N. Fleischmann (right) and Robin Grob (left) digging out a nest of Cataglyphis fortis. (© Pauline N. Fleischmann)


Impressions from Tunisia – on the way from Tunis to Mahares. (© Pauline N. Fleischmann)

Schinias National Park near Marathon, Greece. Habitat of Cataglyphis nodus, about 42 kilometers east of Athens. (© Pauline N. Fleischmann)

Excursion to the Acropolis during a break from field studies (from left to right): Pauline N. Fleischmann, Robin Grob and Wolfgang Rössler. (© Pauline N. Fleischmann)

Typical habitat of Cataglyphis nodus in Schinias National Park. (© Pauline N. Fleischmann)

Installation of a Helmholtz-coil setup for studying effects of the earth’s magnetic field on path integration during learning walks. (© Pauline N. Fleischmann)

Setup for testing the influence of skylight-compass cues during learning walks using different filter sets placed over the nest entrance (with Robin Grob). (© Pauline N. Fleischmann)

Mounting a Helmholtz-coil setup for testing the role of the geomagnetic field during learning walks of naïve Cataglyphis nodus (from left: Wolfgang Rössler, Pauline N. Fleischmann, Robin Grob). (© Pauline N. Fleischmann)

Combining field and laboratory work. Field power supply for the Helmholtz-coil setup with Robin Grob watching the ants performing learning walks on a platform positioned between the electromagnetic coils. Ants were recorded at a high temporal and spatial resolution using a remote controlled 4K camera system mounted above the platform. (© Pauline N. Fleischmann)

Neuroanatomy field laboratory in an apartment close to the field site for dissecting and immunolabeling ant brains in the evening after a hard day of field work. (© Pauline N. Fleischmann)

Individually paint-marked Cataglyphis nodus at their nest entrance in Schinias National Park. (© Pauline N. Fleischmann)

Cataglyphis nodus performing a re-learning walk in an indoor laboratory arena with an artificial sand surface at the University of Würzburg. (© Robin Grob)

Cataglyphis nodus visiting a historical site in Greece. (© Pauline N. Fleischmann)

Cataglyphis nodus close to a nest entrance. (© Pauline N. Fleischmann)

Visit at a lookout by the border of Schinias National Park near Marathon (from left: Wolfgang Rössler, Robin Grob, Pauline N. Fleischmann). (© Wolfgang Rössler)

Field season 2015 farewell cake from the friendly owners of a local bakery in Nea Makri, near the National Park. (© Pauline N. Fleischmann)


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