In The News : Electrocuted Wasps

A report, which is based on evolutionary biologist Elizabeth Tibbetts’s findings, has found that paper wasps are capable of quite developed logical inferences and then making decisions based on those inferences.

In tests conducted over the past 20 years, Tibbetts and her team have confirmed wasps’ advanced behavior, revealing that they also have the ability to remember social interactions with other wasps, recognize familiar and unfamiliar wasp faces, and possess long-lasting memories.  However, this is the first time that invertebrates have been proved capable of such a thing.

The aim of the experiment in question was to find out if wasps’ social skills would make up for their small brain size.  Two colours were paired together, with one giving the wasp a small but unpleasant electric shock, while the other colour was safe.  The colours were given letters A, B, C, D, E where A was the safest (no shock) and E the most dangerous (always a shock).

The first tests paired A with B, B with C, C with D and D with A.  Once the wasps got the hang of those, the combinations were mixed up.  The majority of wasps managed to deduce that the colors closer to A were less likely to be electrified, even in instances where the pairs were in unfamiliar combinations. “I thought wasps might get confused, just like bees,” Tibbetts said in the report. “But they had no trouble figuring out that a particular color was safe in some situations and not safe in other situations.”

The results show that the miniature nervous systems of insects do not limit sophisticated behaviours, but there is still the question, apparently, as to why wasps would need learn this sort of thing.

One thought is that helps them work out who not to pick a fight with:

“Wasps could figure out whether or not they are likely to beat a rival without actually fighting with the rival.  For example, if a wasp saw Jane win a fight with Lisa and that wasp had previously won a fight with Jane, the wasp could infer that she could probably beat Lisa.”

It’s a good thought, but could it not just be because the wasps don’t like being electrocuted?!



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