Which coordinate system for modelling path integration?

Robert John Vickerstaff, Allen Cheung

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

50 Citations (SciVal)


Path integration is a navigation strategy widely observed in nature where an
animal maintains a running estimate, called the home vector, of its location during an excursion. Evidence suggests it is both ancient and ubiquitous in nature, and has been studied for over a century. In that time, canonical and neural network models have flourished, based on a wide range of assumptions, justifications and supporting data. Despite the importance of the phenomenon, consensus and unifying principles appear lacking. A fundamental issue is the neural representation of space needed for biological path integration. This paper presents a scheme to classify path integration systems on the basis of the way the home vector records and updates the spatial relationship between the animal and its home location. Fourextended classes of coordinate systems are used to unify and review both canonical and neural network models of path integration, from the arthropod and mammalian literature. This scheme demonstrates analytical equivalence between model s which may otherwise
appear unrelated, and distinguishes between models which may superficially appear similar. A thorough analysis is carried out of the equational forms of important facets of path integration including updating, steering, searching and systematic errors, using each of the four coordinate systems. The type of available directional cue, namely allothetic or idiothetic, is also considered. It is shown that on balance, the class of home vectors which includes the geocentric Cartesian coordinate system, appears to be the most robust for biological systems. A key conclusion is that deducing computational structure from behavioural data alone will be difficult or impossible, at least in the absence of an analysis of random errors. Consequently it is likely that further theoretical insights into path integration will require an in-depth study of the effect of noise on the four classes of home vectors.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)242-261
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Theoretical Biology
Issue number2
Early online date03 Dec 2009
Publication statusPublished - 21 Mar 2010


  • navigation
  • geocentric
  • egocentric
  • allothetic
  • idiothetic


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