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Abstract

Leaf-cutter ants (Atta colombica) use trail following to travel between foraging sites and the home nest. However, this combination of pheromone and visual cues is likely to be complemented by a directional reference system such as a compass, used not only when foraging but also during colony formation, where foraging trails degrade or where ants become displaced. One candidate system is the magnetic polarity compass. We tested the orientation of leaf-cutter ants under a magnetic field of reversed-polarity, with the prediction that the ants would show 180° deflection compared with control ants in an unchanged geomagnetic field. When the sun's disc was unobstructed by clouds, orientation was the same as that of control ants, implying that magnetic cues were not used to orient. However, when the sky was overcast, ants in the experimental treatment significantly shifted their mean orientation both in comparison with controls and reversed-polarity ants under the sun. Although a total reversal in orientation was not induced, the results demonstrate that Atta respond to magnetic reversal in the absence of sunlight cues, and suggest a role for magnetic cues in determining direction during orientation.