In his book “desert navigator” Rüdiger Wehner shows us how mini brains can solve mega tasks. Wehner describes the extraordinary orienteering skills of desert ants and explains the sophisticated ways insects function in their natural environments.
Cataglyphis desert ants are agile ultrarunners who can tolerate near-lethal temperatures when they forage in the hot midday sun. But it is their remarkable navigational abilities that make these ants so fascinating to study. Whether in the Sahara or its ecological equivalents in the Namib Desert and Australian Outback, the Cataglyphis navigators can set out foraging across vast expanses of desert terrain in search of prey, and then find the shortest way home. For almost half a century, Rüdiger Wehner and his collaborators have devised elegant experiments to unmask how they do it.
Wehner and his team discovered that these insect navigators use visual cues in the sky that humans are unable to see, the Earth’s magnetic field, but also wind direction, a step counter, and panoramic “snapshots” of landmarks, among other resources. The ants combine all of this information to find their way. It is no wonder these nimble and versatile creatures have become models in the study of animal navigation.
Rüdiger Wehner is Professor and Director Emeritus of the Institute of Zoology, University of Zurich. He was a long-time ZNZ member and helped shape the ZNZ through his role in the ZNZ Steering Committee.