Wolf and Wehner* investigated navigation to a food source in desert ants, Cataglyphis fortis. Navigation errors are common, even among humans. Wolf and Wehner note that because of navigation errors, mariners sailing to a far off location would often arrive at the coast at a location slightly off course. If they had navigated to arrive dead on, they would be uncertain which direction to turn to reach their destination. However, if they steered to a direction to one side of the destination outside the margin of error, they could be certain of the correct direction to turn along the coast after their arrival. Navigating in this manner reduced the net travel time. Do ants navigate in the same manner?
Wolf and Wehner observed desert ants, Cataglyphis fortis that use olfactory cues to find food in their desert home. In their desert, the wind is consistently from one direction. Instead of traveling directly toward the location of a feeder, the ants instead head at a bearing that should take them downwind from the feeder. The ants continue off course until they reach a point where they can detect odor emanating from the feeder. Then they orient directly upwind to arrive at the feeder. By this process the ants avoid passing the feeder on the upwind side which would require a more lengthy search to finally arrive at the food.
*Harald Wolf and Rüdiger Werner. 2005. Desert ants compensate for navigation uncertainty. The Journal of Experimental Biology 208, 4223-4230.