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2. A Brief History of Wayfinding > 2.1. All Creatures Great and Small

All Creatures Great and Small

Before we lavish attention on Homo sapiens, it’s worth taking a look at the wayfinding skills of a few other species with which we share planet Earth. Their solutions to the challenges of orientation and navigation can illuminate our own. For example, have you ever wondered how ants find a feeding site and then return home? Lacking maps and street signs and cell phones, these tiny creatures regularly travel thousands of times their own body length to arrive at a pinpoint goal.

After decades of research, behavioral biologists have begun to figure out how. Studies show that ants use a combination of geocentric and egocentric techniques. Geocentric navigation (also called allocentric or exocentric) relies on external environmental cues such as landmarks and any available map information. Ants make intensive use of visual landmarks. In effect, ants take snapshots as they proceed from one location to another, and they’re able to rely on those visual memories to retrace their routes. Before leaving home, an ant takes a visual snapshot of the panorama as seen from the nest. Upon return, the ant finds its nest by positioning itself so the current image of the environment matches the stored snapshot. If the image is smaller than the snapshot, the ant moves closer. If the image is larger, the ant moves away. Research shows that ants make use of multiple, successive snapshots to find their way along each foraging route.


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