In a synthetic approach to studying navigational abilities in desert ants, we review recent work comparing ants living in different visual ecologies. Those living in a visually rich habitat strewn with tussocks, bushes, and trees are compared to those living in visually barren salt pans, as exemplified by the Central Australian Melophorus bagoti and the North African Cataglyphis fortis, respectively. In bare habitats the navigator must rely primarily on path integration, keeping track of the distance and direction in which it has travelled, while in visually rich habitats the navigator can rely more on guidance by the visual panorama. Consistent with these expectations, C. fortis performs better than M. bagoti on various measures of precision at path integration. In contrast, M. bagoti learned a visually based associative task better than C. fortis, the latter generally failing at the task. Both these ants, however, exhibit a similar pattern of systematic search as a 'back up' strategy when other navigational strategies fail. A newly investigated salt-pan species of Melophorus (as yet unnamed) resembles C. fortis more, and its congener M. bagoti less, in its path integration. The synthetic approach would benefit from comparing more species chosen to address evolutionary questions.This article is part of a Special Issue entitled: CO3 2013.