When the ants encounter that kind of treat, it's as if "they say, 'Wow, there is a large food item. Let's get home," Whittlinger said.
He and his team filmed the ants with a high-speed camera and recorded that the reversing ants walked at about the same step rate as when they moved forward. Each leg, however, was moving on its own, versus the "tripod gait" of always keeping three legs in contact with the ground as the other three swing forward, which is what the ants use when moving forward.
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They go backwards "by faster swings and they often use leg combinations where more than three legs have ground contact to increase their static stability," Pfeffer explained.
The researchers said that the ants could be using one of two methods to measure the length of each stride. The first is that they might utilize a copy of their brain motor signals and subconsciously add them up to calculate a distance.
The second possibility is that they measure the length of each stride or leg swing.
Because the ants know precisely how far they travel, even though each leg moves individually, Wittlinger said, "The data suggest it is the second hypothesis."
It's still a mystery as to what exact cues the ants are using to so skillfully navigate their environment. Are they following odors, visuals and/or perhaps signals from something else? The answers, if determined, could some day be applied to man-made tech.
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