Scientists Find Ants Prefer Left Turns When Exploring Unknown Spaces

Posted on January 5, 2015

Ant entering an unknown space

Scientists have discovered that ants prefer turning left when exploring unknown spaces. This left bias in ants was discovered by researchers at the University of Bristol. The researchers say the majority of rock ants instinctively go left when they enter an unknown space.

University of Bristol PhD student Edmund Hunt and his colleagues observed Temnothorax albipennis ants exploring different nest cavities and watched them travel through branching mazes like the one pictured above. They found the rock ants were much more likely to take a left run than a right turn when exploring new nests. The same left bias was observed when ants were placed in branching mazes.

Hunt has a couple theories as to why ants prefer to go left in unexplored areas. He says in a statement, "The ants may be using their left eye to detect predators and their right to navigate. Also, their world is maze-like and consistently turning one way is a very good strategy to search and exit mazes. Furthermore, as their nest-mates are left-leaning too, there should also be safety in numbers. Consistent turning may also help the ants to monitor nest mates during house hunting. So perhaps leaning left is more shrewd than sinister."

The Smithsonian notes that other animals also demonstrate behavioral lateralization and that 90% of humans are naturally right-handed. However, there have not been a lot of studies on the left or right bias of creatures as they encounter new mazes like this study of ants by the Bristol researchers. A study here says more rats show an innate right bias in spontaneous arm preference in a T-maze.

Image: Edmund Hunt