Tag Archives: navigation

GPS for ants (and maybe other animals, too)

Giant bulldog ant; GPS available as optional upgradeLike many naturalists, I’ve always been fairly fascinated by ants – their industrious sense of purpose, their ability to collaborate as a single metaorganism, and so on. Greater minds than myself have often wondered how they navigate over wide areas so effectively, and now an answer has been unearthed: ant antennae incorporate magnetic minerals that may form part of an insectoid GPS system. [image by Arthur Chapman]

“The incorporation of minerals probably starts as soon as ants start getting in touch with soil,” she added, explaining to Discovery News that her team found ultra fine-grained crystals of magnetic magnetite, maghemite, hematite, goethite, and aluminum silicates in ant antennae. These particles could make a “biological compass needle” that drives ant GPS.


Our planet is magnetized, likely due to rotational forces of liquid iron in Earth’s core. Although the resulting magnetic field is one-twenty thousandth as strong as a refrigerator magnet, ants appear to “perceive the geomagnetic information through a magnetic sensor (the dirt particles), transduce it in a signal to the nervous system and then to the brain,” she said.

Not all ants may use this particular system. Desert ants, for example, appear to have evolved special eyes that detect skylight polarization, which they then use to find their way around their sandy habitat. Magnetic particles, however, have been detected in many fish, birds, butterflies, flies, bees, bats, mole rats, newts, sea turtles and spiny lobsters, suggesting these animals find their way like the Brazilian ants do.

Ain’t nature wonderful?

I wonder if perhaps we humans have  a similar ability lying dormant in our bodies, shoved aside by evolutionary pressures as unnecessary since we stopped being roaming bands of primates and began to settle in stable locations. Perhaps it could be reawakened, or simply installed from scratch by some deft ribofunk biohacking? Imagine a post-fuel future where we have an entire and recently re-greened planet to roam on foot – how wonderful to set out with no map besides the tiny magnets buried in your brain!


lost personGot a GPS in your car? Well, I hope you’ve not become too reliant on it and totally lost the ability to use old-fashioned road maps, because GPS service could start getting patchy next year, when the ageing satellites that make up the system’s infrastructure start falling out of orbit before their replacements can be set up.

Seems like someone’s been blowin’ the boondoggle blues and letting the maintenance schedule slip behind:

The warning centres on the network of GPS satellites that constantly orbit the planet and beam signals back to the ground that help pinpoint your position on the Earth’s surface.

The satellites are overseen by the US Air Force, which has maintained the GPS network since the early 1990s. According to a study by the US government accountability office (GAO), mismanagement and a lack of investment means that some of the crucial GPS satellites could begin to fail as early as next year.

“It is uncertain whether the Air Force will be able to acquire new satellites in time to maintain current GPS service without interruption,” said the report, presented to Congress. “If not, some military operations and some civilian users could be adversely affected.”

The report says that Air Force officials have failed to execute the necessary steps to keep the system running smoothly.

Ouch. As pointed out in the Guardian article, it’s highly unlikely that the USAF will let the system degrade totally – it’s too useful, not just to them but to a lot of people the world over – but just as we have to accept with other ubiquitous services like Google, outages may occur, and there’ll be no one to complain to; it’s all there in the small print, man. [image by Larsz]

That said, it’s a free market, and you can always shop around for alternatives – apparently Russia, China and India are all working on their own equivalent systems, which is probably even more upsetting to the USAF than the possibility of flakey service from their own kit.