Academic journal article Science Scope

Facing off in the Hive

Academic journal article Science Scope

Facing off in the Hive

Article excerpt

Standing out in a crowd is better than blending in, at least if you're a paper wasp in a colony where fights between nest-mates determine social status. That's the conclusion of a study by graduate student Michael Sheehan and evolutionary biologist Elizabeth Tibbetts at the University of Michigan.

In earlier research, Tibbetts showed that paper wasps (Polistes fuscatus) recognize individuals by variations in their facial markings and that they behave more aggressively toward wasps with unfamiliar faces. Then last year, Sheehan and Tibbetts published a paper demonstrating that these wasps have surprisingly long memories and base their behavior on what they remember of previous social interactions with other wasps.

That's important in 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.

In the latest work, Sheehan and Tibbetts wanted to see if individual wasps benefit not only by being able to recognize others, but by being recognizable themselves. Most previous studies of individual recognition--which is found not only in social wasps, but also in a variety of creatures including lobsters, salamanders, penguins, and people--have focused only on the presence or absence of the ability in a given species. …

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