Wasps, like children, say no to strangers

Scientists have long thought that social awareness and cognition was a trait that was limited to large animals with complex brains. Turns out that it doesn’t require as much brain power as they originally thought – the simple paper wasp is able to recognize and remember other individuals and act on those memories accordingly.

I want more candy!
You’re lying, right?
My brain hurts!

What is social cognition?
Social cognition is the ability to recognize and remember individuals and to tailor your behavior towards them based on these memories. These skills promote formation of a cooperative society. If you can remember your friends, you can conserve energy by interacting positively with them, and saving aggressive shows of behavior for your enemies and for strangers.

How did they determine that wasps have social cognition?
Two female queens were put together in isolation and their behavior was monitored and scored for aggressiveness. When these wasps had not met before, the behavior tended to be very aggressive (to see a video of what this looks like, check out the links below). The wasps were then separated into different cages, each containing a number of other wasps. After a week, the two original wasps were put into a cage together again, and this time their behavior tended to be much more peaceful.

Why the change in attitude?
The authors of the study believe that the behavioral change seen in the second meeting was a reflection of the way that paper wasps organize their nests. Often, multiple queens band together cooperatively to form a nest, improving chances of survival. However, in the early stages, these queens have to duke it out to determine the pecking order. Once the pecking order is set, the queens will no longer fight each other, as this would be a waste of energy and resources. If a queen can recognize the other queens in the colony, she can remember the pecking order and refrain from aggressive behavior.

So social cognition allows the formation of societies?
In a way, yes. Many insects, such as ants, have simple societies that are based around simple rules, but each individual acts and is treated the same. In more complex societies, each individual has a social memory of its interactions with the other members of the society, leading to cooperation and personal relationships. Scientists have long known that this effect played a role in the evolution of primate, and ultimately human, societies, but it was a surprise that these same skills come into play in an organism as simple as the paper wasp.

It’s not just humans and other big critters who can recognize and remember each other – simple insects like the paper wasp are capable of remembering their friends as well.

Wasp Smackdown – Wondering what fighting and friendly wasp behavior looks like? Check out this news video about the study on YouTube.
Wasp faces – See the variation between female wasp faces in these photos
Learn more about paper wasps – from the grad student who conducted the study
Study abstract – from the journal Current Biology

Photo by Don Van Dyke

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