Dr. Sarah Pfeffer

Applied Neuroethology of Insects and Arthropods

The ability to locomote and to navigate plays an indispensable role within the animal kingdom. Very impressive here is the agility of insects that certainly has contributed to their striking evolutionary success. Insects demonstrate a wide range of outstanding performances - like walking on uneven and complex grounds, climbing smoothly on ceilings, running extremely fast with numerous body lengths per second or navigating over unknown terrain over tremenduously long distances - to name just a few examples. If this movability is somehow impaired (e.g. if non-target organisms unintentionally are exposed to modern insecticides) this can have most severe consequences for the insects' fitness and survival.

In this respect, our work group is interested in several aspects of insect neuroethology, applying a combination of field and laboratory methods.



1) Locomotion

We examine the walking behaviour of several insects and arthropod species. All in common is the problem that the locomotive system has to cope with the unpredictability of its environment, still maintaining a robust and stable interleg coordidnation. Given the insects' impressive agility, it is not without reason that the outcome of such locomotion studies has inspired the implementation of autonomous walking in robots.

2) Navigation

Currently, we are working with North African Cataglyphis desert ants, important model organisms in animal navigation research. After finding some prey item, these ants are able to relocate the inconspicuous nest entrance, a 1-2 cm hole in the desert floor, not rarely 10.000 body lengths apart from their current position. We are particularly interested in distance measurement mechanisms and the flexible adaptation regarding the ants' navigational system.

3) Influence of modern insecticides

Modern insecticides, like neonicotinoids, can negatively influence the movability and behaviour of non-target invertebrates and are, therefore, related to  the present population decline in insects. The problem is that not many insect species have been examined comprehensively and that there is only little information available with respect to sublethal and longterm effects. Therefore, we  further qualify and quantify the behavioural performance of different insect species, aiming to come up with easily identifiable indicators that could be used in an applicable bioassay.

Recent publications

Wolf H, Wittlinger M, Pfeffer SE (2018) Two distance memories in desert ants - Modes of interaction. PLoSOne 13(10): e0204664. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0204664.

Dahmen H, Wahl VL, Pfeffer SE, Mallot HA, Wittlinger M (2017) Naturalistic path integration of Cataglyphis desert ants on an air-cushioned lightweight spherical treadmill. Journal of Experimental Biology 220 (4), 634-644. doi: 10.1242/jeb.148213

Pfeffer SE, Wittlinger M (2016) Optic flow odometry operates independently of stride integration in carried ants. Science 353 (6304), 1155-1157. doi: 10.1126/science.aaf9754.

Pfeffer, SE (2016) Forward and backward walking: Locomotion and navigation in Cataglyphis fortis. Doktorarbeit, OPARU, Universität Ulm. doi: 10.18725/OPARU-4268.

Pfeffer, SE, Knight K (2016) Reversing ants navigate successfully. Journal of Experimental Biology 219 (14), 2083. Promotionsartikel (Category 'Inside JEB), with video abstract.

Pfeffer SE, Wahl VL, Wittlinger M (2016) How to find home backwards? Locomotion and inter-leg coordination during rearward walking of Cataglyphis fortis desert ants. Journal of Experimental Biology 219 (14), 2110-2118. doi: 10.1242/jeb.137778.

Pfeffer SE, Wittlinger M (2016) How to find home backwards? Navigation during rearward homing of Cataglyphis fortis desert ants. Journal of Experimental Biology 219 (14), 2119-2126. doi: 10.1242/jeb.137786.

Pfeffer SE, Bolek S, Wolf H, Wittlinger M (2015) Nest and food search behaviour in desert ants, Cataglyphis: a critical comparison. Animal cognition. 18 (4), 885-894. doi: 10.1007/s10071-015-0858-0

Wahl V*, Pfeffer SE*, Wittlinger M (2015) Walking and running in the desert ant Cataglyphis fortis. Journal of Comparative Physiology. 201 (6), 645-656 A. doi: 10.1007/s00359-015-0999-2
* both authors contributed equally to the work.








  • Dr. Sarah Pfeffer
  • Room: M25/5215
  • Phone: +49 (0) 731-50-22687
  • Fax: +49 (0) 731-50-22629