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Ants Usually Turn Left While Exploring

It’s a sinister version of human’s tendency towards right-handedness

(Photo: Science Photo Library/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Around 90 percent of humans are naturally right-handed. It's an example of what researchers call behavioral lateralization, an innate bias we're born with. Animals also demonstrate behavioral lateralization: Birds, if given a choice to fly left or right at a fork in a tunnel, have individual preferences that they almost always stick to. Rats, too, have a preferred direction when they twitch their tail or turn their head, especially when they’re stressed out.

Now, scientists have found that ants also demonstrate behavioral lateralization. When those insects are placed in mazes or new nests, researchers from the University of Bristol discovered that the ants almost always make left turns while exploring the unfamiliar setting. The team has no idea why the ants would have evolved to favor left rather than right, but they do have a few hypotheses. Consistently turning one direction over the other is a surer way of finding an exit if you’re lost or stuck somewhere. Or it could be that ants are all programmed to make left turns just to keep workers together. Or, the team added in a statement, “The ants may be using their left eye to detect predators and their right to navigate.”

While the team’s initial findings require more investigation, they point out that those follow-up studies could shed light on more than just a quirk of ant antics. Investigating the biological basis of behavioral lateralization in insects could offer insight into more complex creatures that exhibit similar behaviors, including humans. 

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