When sand wasps leave home in the morning they capture snapshots of the landscape around their nest to make sure they can find their way back later, a study using high-speed video has found.

The field study, published today in the journalCurrent Biology, is the first to reconstruct what a homing insect in the field sees, co-author Professor Jochen Zeil from the Australian National University’s Research School of Biology said.

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“They look back at the nest from the view point of their future return,” he said.

“It’s a bit like when you leave a hotel in an unfamiliar environment. To make sure you recognise it when you come back, you turn back as you are leaving it.

“It’s a very smart way of obtaining all the information you need to get back.”

It has long been known that insects use orientation flights to help find their way back to the nest, but until now, no-one knew exactly what information they used in this process and how they used it.

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To investigate this question, Dr Zeil and colleagues used two high-speed cameras to record the brief orientation flight of the female ground-nesting wasp Cerceris australis.

The researchers captured both the three-dimensional path travelled by the wasp and the direction the insect was looking at the time.

“In a way we were sitting in cockpit of this animal while it was learning how the scene looks like around the nest on departure,” Dr Zeil said.

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Wasps have compound eyes that capture the world in low resolution and panoramic vision.

The researchers combined this fact with flight path information to reconstruct what the wasps saw on their orientation flight.

Dr Zeil and colleagues showed that during the orientation flight the wasp flies backwards away from the nest in a very systematic zigzag pattern of arcs around the nest, slowly getting higher and further away (see video below).

The researchers hypothesized that during the orientation flight, the wasp would produce a systematic sequence of views of the nest in its landscape, which they used when deciding what direction to fly in on their return.

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Dr Zeil and colleagues showed their hypothesis was correct by successfully predicting the movements of wasps returning to their nest.

They then tested their hypothesis on computer models and found that virtual wasps could be “brought home” if they were programmed with orientation flight data from real wasps.

Dr Zeil said the research could help in the development of miniaturised autonomously-navigating robots.

Support for the study came from a number of institutions, including the German Science Foundation, Australian Research Council and the Defence Science Technology Organisation.

Article first appeared on ABC Science.