Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Like Humans, the Paper Wasp Has a Special Talent for Learning Faces

05.12.2011
Though paper wasps have brains less than a millionth the size of humans', they have evolved specialized face-learning abilities analogous to the system used by humans, according to a University of Michigan evolutionary biologist and one of her graduate students.

"Wasps and humans have independently evolved similar and very specialized face-learning mechanisms, despite the fact that everything about the way we see and the way our brains are structured is different," said graduate student Michael Sheehan, who worked with evolutionary biologist Elizabeth Tibbetts on the face-recognition study. "That's surprising and sort of bizarre."

The study marks the first time that any insect has demonstrated such a high level of specialized visual learning, said Sheehan, lead author of a paper on the topic scheduled for online publication in the journal Science on Thursday, Dec. 1.

In earlier research, Tibbetts showed that paper wasps (Polistes fuscatus) recognize individuals of their species by variations in their facial markings and that they behave more aggressively toward wasps with unfamiliar faces.

In 2008, Sheehan and Tibbetts published a paper in Current Biology demonstrating that these wasps have surprisingly long memories and base their behavior on what they remember of previous social interactions with other wasps.

In their latest study, Sheehan and Tibbetts tested learning by training wasps to discriminate between two different images mounted inside a T-maze, with one image displayed at each end of the top arm of the T.

Twelve wasps were trained for 40 consecutive trials on each image type. The paired images included photos of normal paper wasp faces, photos of caterpillars, simple geometric patterns, and computer-altered wasp faces. A reward was consistently associated with one image in a pair.

The researchers found that the paper wasps, which are generalist visual predators of caterpillars, were able to differentiate between two unaltered P. fuscatus faces faster and more accurately than a pair of caterpillar photos, two different geometric patterns, or a pair of computer-altered wasp faces. They learned to pick the correct unaltered wasp face about three-quarters of the time.

Two simple black-and-white geometric patterns should have been easy for the wasps to distinguish, because the insects' compound eyes are good at detecting contrast and outlines, Sheehan said. Yet the wasps learned complicated face images more rapidly than the geometric patterns.

At the same time, introducing seemingly minor changes to a P. fuscatus facial image—by using a photo-editing program to remove a wasp's antennae, for example—caused test subjects to perform much worse on the facial recognition test.

"This shows that the way they learn faces is different than the way they seem to be learning other patterns. They treat faces as a different kind of thing," Sheehan said.

"Humans have a specialized face-learning ability, and it turns out that this wasp that lives on the side of your house evolved an analogous system on its own," he said. "But it's important to note that we're not claiming the exact process by which wasps learn faces is the same as humans."

The ability to recognize individuals is important to a species like P. fuscatus, in which multiple queens establish communal nests and raise offspring cooperatively, but also compete to form a linear dominance hierarchy. Remembering who they've already bested–and been bested by–keeps individuals from wasting energy on repeated aggressive encounters and presumably promotes colony stability by reducing friction.

Sheehan also tested a closely related species of wasp, P. metricus, which lacks the varied facial markings of the paper wasp and lives in colonies controlled by a single queen. In the T-maze test, P. metricus scored no better than chance when asked to distinguish between individuals of its own species.

"Differences in face learning between the two species cannot be attributed to general differences in visual learning, as both species learned to discriminate between pairs of artificial patterns and caterpillars at the same rate and with the same accuracy," Sheehan and Tibbetts wrote. "P. fuscatus and P. metricus differed only in their ability to learn normal face stimuli."

"The evolutionary flexibility of specialized face learning is striking and suggests that specialized cognition may be a widespread adaptation to facilitate complex behavioral tasks such as individual recognition," they wrote.

Funding for the project was provided by the University of Michigan and an E.S. George Reserve Scholarship to Sheehan.

Related links

Michael Sheehan: http://sitemaker.umich.edu/sheehan/michael_sheehan__home
Elizabeth Tibbetts: http://lsa.umich.edu/eeb/directory/faculty/tibbetts/

Jim Erickson | Newswise Science News
Further information:
http://www.umich.edu

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Protein linked to cancer acts as a viscous glue in cell division
08.07.2020 | Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

nachricht Enzymes as double agents: new mechanism discovered in protein modification
08.07.2020 | Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Excitation of robust materials

Kiel physics team observed extremely fast electronic changes in real time in a special material class

In physics, they are currently the subject of intensive research; in electronics, they could enable completely new functions. So-called topological materials...

Im Focus: Electrons in the fast lane

Solar cells based on perovskite compounds could soon make electricity generation from sunlight even more efficient and cheaper. The laboratory efficiency of these perovskite solar cells already exceeds that of the well-known silicon solar cells. An international team led by Stefan Weber from the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research (MPI-P) in Mainz has found microscopic structures in perovskite crystals that can guide the charge transport in the solar cell. Clever alignment of these "electron highways" could make perovskite solar cells even more powerful.

Solar cells convert sunlight into electricity. During this process, the electrons of the material inside the cell absorb the energy of the light....

Im Focus: The lightest electromagnetic shielding material in the world

Empa researchers have succeeded in applying aerogels to microelectronics: Aerogels based on cellulose nanofibers can effectively shield electromagnetic radiation over a wide frequency range – and they are unrivalled in terms of weight.

Electric motors and electronic devices generate electromagnetic fields that sometimes have to be shielded in order not to affect neighboring electronic...

Im Focus: Gentle wall contact – the right scenario for a fusion power plant

Quasi-continuous power exhaust developed as a wall-friendly method on ASDEX Upgrade

A promising operating mode for the plasma of a future power plant has been developed at the ASDEX Upgrade fusion device at Max Planck Institute for Plasma...

Im Focus: ILA Goes Digital – Automation & Production Technology for Adaptable Aircraft Production

Live event – July 1, 2020 - 11:00 to 11:45 (CET)
"Automation in Aerospace Industry @ Fraunhofer IFAM"

The Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Technology and Advanced Materials IFAM l Stade is presenting its forward-looking R&D portfolio for the first time at...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

Contact Tracing Apps against COVID-19: German National Academy Leopoldina hosts international virtual panel discussion

07.07.2020 | Event News

International conference QuApps shows status quo of quantum technology

02.07.2020 | Event News

Dresden Nexus Conference 2020: Same Time, Virtual Format, Registration Opened

19.05.2020 | Event News

 
Latest News

On-chip spin-Hall nanograting for simultaneously detecting phase and polarization singularities

08.07.2020 | Physics and Astronomy

Engineers use electricity to clean up toxic water

08.07.2020 | Agricultural and Forestry Science

Atomic 'Swiss army knife' precisely measures materials for quantum computers

08.07.2020 | Materials Sciences

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>