When hearing about ants, you might immediately think of those that scurry over your foods during picnic time. But these tiny creatures are more fascinating than that. Have you ever imagined them in treadmills? Well, you’ll see one now- not for exercise but for science!
Recently, the aforementioned researchers used a custom-made treadmill to understand ants' fancy footwork and to know better the mechanisms they use to navigate home. These “personalized” treadmill spins responsively as the ant walks with their tiny (and really fast) legs.
Along with this are tiny leashes made from a filament of dental floss that were glued to their' back. This is designed to keep them oriented but still allows them to move freely. Unlike your conventional gym treadmills, this is a lightweight sphere in which pins were suspended from the ant’s leash.
Researchers captured these ants through a feeder located about 33 feet (10 meters) from their nest entrance. Once they’re placed on the treadmill, these scientists recorded the direction and speed of the walking ants.
"They virtually travel for many meters on the treadmill, as if they were running in the open field," he explained.
Scientists found that the ants would begin with a direct approach of heading straight to their home. They ran toward the nest's presumed location through mechanisms that prior studies had shown were critical to ant navigation: using the position of the sun and patterns of polarization in the sky as a compass, and calculating the distance by counting their own strides, Wittlinger said
Moreover, when the insects didn't find the nest and realized that they’re lost, they adopted a different locomotion pattern and switch to what Wittlinger identified as "search mode” wherein they slow down and move in a looping pattern.
For several years, scientists have been trying to understand how different animals and insects use various methods of going home. Remember how turtles migrate to different parts of the vast ocean in a particular year and then always end up back on the same origin for the rest of it? Now the ants’ mysterious homing behavior has been cracked after years of study and can offer us lush implications about understanding more complex minds in the future.
Maybe years from now we won’t need GPS to find a place, maybe a chip in our minds modelled after the ants’ homing mechanism will do it for us.