A world-renowned researcher of animal behaviour reveals the extraordinary orienteering skills of desert ants, offering a thrilling account of 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.
Through a lively and lucid narrative, Desert Navigator offers a firsthand look at the extraordinary navigational skills of these charismatic desert dwellers and the experiments that revealed how they strategize and solve complex problems. 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, wind direction, a step counter, and panoramic "snapshots" of landmarks, among other resources. The ants combine all of this information to steer an optimal course. At any given time during their long journey, they know exactly where to go. It is no wonder these nimble and versatile creatures have become models in the study of animal navigation.
Desert Navigator brings to light the marvelous capacity and complexity found in these remarkable insects and shows us how mini-brains can solve mega tasks.
1. Setting the Scene
2. The Thermophiles
3. Finding Directions
4. Estimating Distances
5. Integrating Paths
6. Using Landmarks
7. Organizing the Journey
Rüdiger Wehner is Professor Emeritus at the Brain Research Institute, University of Zurich, recipient of the Marcel Benoist Prize, the Carus Medal of the Leopoldina, the Karl von Frisch Medal and Science Prize, the King Faisal International Prize for Science, and the Alexander von Humboldt Research Award. He is International Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as well as the American Philosophical Society, and principal author of the well-known Zoologie textbook.
"Rüdiger Wehner's Desert Navigator is destined to be a classic in entomology and behavioral biology. It is through an extraordinary series of observations and experiments that we have the first effective look into the mind of ants."
– Edward O. Wilson, University Professor Emeritus, Harvard University
"Wehner's research has been highly influential in human spatial cognition, and we are lucky to have this rich and fascinating account."
– Steven Pinker, author of How the Mind Works
"This book is a masterpiece par excellence! Superb science, eloquently and engagingly written, and beautifully illustrated."
– Bert Hölldobler, Foundation Professor of Life Sciences and Regent's Professor, Arizona State University
"Rarely do scientists write such broad and beautiful syntheses. The quality of the scholarship and the writing found in this book is truly outstanding. Indeed, it is a breathtaking piece of work."
– Thomas D. Seeley, Horace White Professor in Biology, Cornell University
"This is a marvelous book that no one could have written but Rüdiger Wehner. It is simply excellent."
– Alexander Borst, Director, Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology, Martinsried