Spatial recognition cues used in site fidelity in the ant Formica uralensis Ruzsky were studied using outdoor and laboratory arenas. Ant workers visiting symmetrically spaced feeders were colour-marked corresponding to the initial feeder visited during sampling. The effect of manipulating environmental cues on the mean ‘spatial specialization’ of the population was measured. Site recognition appears to be based on visual landmark/canopy cues. However, ants maintained some fidelity when shielded from these cues, suggesting the involvement of additional cues. When ridding our experimental device of olfactory deposits and shielding visual cues, site fidelity was lost. Idiothetic and/or geomagnetic cues are thought to provide spatial references to visual or olfactory landmarks. Altering nest position relative to the arena and changing the geomagnetic field within the arena in our study, however, did nothing to the site fidelity of visually deprived and non-deprived foragers.

We conclude that site fidelity is developed in a visually structured environment but supplemented by an olfactory backup system that is probably based on discrete home range markings rather than radial odour trails. We demonstrate furthermore that the visual component involved in site location can be stored in the memory of individual F. uralensis foragers during a 6-month hibernation period.