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Backwards Ants

August 10, 2016

Desert ants adjust their gait to navigate backwards with large loads of food.


A desert ant drags the body of a spider backwards through the hot sand. (Matthias Wittlinger)


Ants in reverse. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Under the hot Tunisian sun, desert ants survive by hauling large, dead insects home.

SARAH PFEFFER (Ulm University, Germany):

If the food is up to 10 times their own body length, they will drag it backwards.


Ulm University neurobiologist Sarah Pfeffer says the ants alter their typical gait pattern to do so. Normally, they propel two legs on one side and one leg on the other side of their body forward at the same time. But Pfeffer and her team report in the Journal of Experimental Biology that to walk backwards, the ants have to employ a more free-form gait. Despite this, they can still calculate the number of steps required to make it back home, often stopping to re-orient themselves.


They are amazing navigators, finding home without any landmark cue, only the plain desert; that’s impressive.


The research could inspire the design of insect-like robots. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Story by Susanne Bard