Navigation is the ability of animals to move through their environment in a planned manner. Different from directed but reflex-driven movements, it involves the comparison of the animal’s current heading with its intended heading (i.e., the goal direction). When the two angles don’t match, a compensatory steering movement must be initiated. This basic scenario can be described as an elementary navigational decision. Many elementary decisions chained together in specific ways form a coherent navigational strategy. With respect to navigational goals, there are four main forms of navigation: explorative navigation (exploring the environment for food, mates, shelter, etc.); homing (returning to a nest); straight-line orientation (getting away from a central place in a straight line); and long-distance migration (seasonal long-range movements to a location such as an overwintering place). The homing behavior of ants and bees has been examined in the most detail. These insects use several strategies to return to their nest after foraging, including path integration, route following, and, potentially, even exploit internal maps. Independent of the strategy used, insects can use global sensory information (e.g., skylight cues), local cues (e.g., visual panorama), and idiothetic (i.e., internal, self-generated) cues to obtain information about their current and intended headings.
How are these processes controlled by the insect brain? While many unanswered questions remain, much progress has been made in recent years in understanding the neural basis of insect navigation. Neural pathways encoding polarized light information (a global navigational cue) target a brain region called the central complex, which is also involved in movement control and steering. Being thus placed at the interface of sensory information processing and motor control, this region has received much attention recently and emerged as the navigational “heart” of the insect brain. It houses an ordered array of head-direction cells that use a wide range of sensory information to encode the current heading of the animal. At the same time, it receives information about the movement speed of the animal and thus is suited to compute the home vector for path integration. With the help of neurons following highly stereotypical projection patterns, the central complex theoretically can perform the comparison of current and intended heading that underlies most navigation processes. Examining the detailed neural circuits responsible for head-direction coding, intended heading representation, and steering initiation in this brain area will likely lead to a solid understanding of the neural basis of insect navigation in the years to come.