Journal of Experimental Biology, The Company of Biologists Ltd, June 2018 (article)
Many ants use a combination of cues for orientation but how do ants find their way when all external cues are suppressed? Do they walk in a random way or are their movements spatially oriented? Here we show for the first time that leaf-cutting ants (Acromyrmex lundii) have an innate preference of turning counter-clockwise (left) when external cues are precluded. We demonstrated this by allowing individual ants to run freely on the water surface of a newly-developed treadmill. The surface tension supported medium-sized workers but effectively prevented ants from reaching the wall of the vessel, important to avoid wall-following behaviour (thigmotaxis). Most ants ran for minutes on the spot but also slowly turned counter-clockwise in the absence of visual cues. Reconstructing the effectively walked path revealed a looping pattern which could be interpreted as a search strategy. A similar turning bias was shown for groups of ants in a symmetrical Y-maze where twice as many ants chose the left branch in the absence of optical cues. Wall-following behaviour was tested by inserting a coiled tube before the Y-fork. When ants traversed a left-coiled tube, more ants chose the left box and vice versa. Adding visual cues in form of vertical black strips either outside the treadmill or on one branch of the Y-maze led to oriented walks towards the strips. It is suggested that both, the turning bias and the wall-following are employed as search strategies for an unknown environment which can be overridden by visual cues.
Journal of The Royal Society Interface, 14(131):20170134, The Royal Society, June 2017 (article)
Animals using adhesive pads to climb smooth surfaces face the problem of keeping their pads clean and functional. Here, a self-cleaning mechanism is proposed whereby soiled feet would slip on the surface due to a lack of adhesion but shed particles in return. Our study offers an in situ quantification of self-cleaning performance in fibrillar adhesives, using the dock beetle as a model organism. After beetles soiled their pads by stepping into patches of spherical beads, we found that their gait was significantly affected. Specifically, soiled pads slipped 10 times further than clean pads, with more particles deposited for longer slips. Like previous studies, we found that particle size affected cleaning performance. Large (45 μm) beads were removed most effectively, followed by medium (10 μm) and small (1 μm). Consistent with our results from climbing beetles, force measurements on freshly severed legs revealed larger detachment forces of medium particles from adhesive pads compared to a flat surface, possibly due to interlocking between fibres. By contrast, dock leaves showed an overall larger affinity to the beads and thus reduced the need for cleaning. Self-cleaning through slippage provides a mechanism robust to particle size and may inspire solutions for artificial adhesives.
In Proc. R. Soc. B, 284(1849):20162867, Febuary 2017 (inproceedings)
Most studies on the adhesive mechanisms of climbing animals have addressed attachment against flat surfaces, yet many animals can climb highly curved surfaces, like twigs and small branches. Here we investigated whether tree frogs use a clamping grip by recording the ground reaction forces on a cylindrical object with either a smooth or anti-adhesive, rough surface. Furthermore, we measured the contact area of fore and hindlimbs against differently sized transparent cylinders and the forces of individual pads and subarticular tubercles in restrained animals. Our study revealed that frogs use friction and normal forces of roughly a similar magnitude for holding on to cylindrical objects. When challenged with climbing a non-adhesive surface, the compressive forces between opposite legs nearly doubled, indicating a stronger clamping grip. In contrast to climbing flat surfaces, frogs increased the contact area on all limbs by engaging not just adhesive pads but also subarticular tubercles on curved surfaces. Our force measurements showed that tubercles can withstand larger shear stresses than pads. SEM images of tubercles revealed a similar structure to that of toe pads including the presence of nanopillars, though channels surrounding epithelial cells were less pronounced. The tubercles' smaller size, proximal location on the toes and shallow cells make them probably less prone to buckling and thus ideal for gripping curved surfaces.
Our goal is to understand the principles of Perception, Action and Learning in autonomous systems that successfully interact with complex environments and to use this understanding to design future systems