Your face looks familiar: paper wasps of the species Polistes fuscatus live in strict hierarchical societies in which the ability to identify superiors and subordinates is crucial. Like humans, these insects have a cognitive tool kit for recognizing familiar faces

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Authors: Lars Chittka and Adrian Dyer
Date: Jan. 12, 2012
From: Nature(Vol. 481, Issue 7380)
Publisher: Nature Publishing Group
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,141 words
Lexile Measure: 1610L

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The ability to recognize individuals can convey significant benefits to social animals. In humans, the capacity to recognize different faces is crucial for making individual behaviour predictable for other members of a group--for keeping track of who is aggressive, bold or wise--and so for knowing everyone's place in a family or society. Moreover, there is strong evidence (1,2) that primate brains contain specialized modules for face processing and recognition. Writing in Science, Sheehan and Tibbetts (3) present evidence that an insect, the paper wasp Polistes fuscatus, not only recognizes the faces of individuals of the same species, but is a veritable expert at face discrimination.

Individual queens of many social insects, including Polistes metricus--a species closely related to P. fuscatus--found colonies in the spring, a perilous and challenging enterprise for a single insect. By contrast, several P. fuscatus queens typically join forces to build, defend and provide for a new nest. This boosts the chances of the project's success, but, for many of the hopeful foundresses, there is a price to pay: a linear hierarchy is established through a series of one-on-one fights. Consequently, the strongest queen dominates egg-laying, whereas subordinates do more menial tasks. After a duel, individuals recognize their opponents by their distinct facial markings, which helps to avoid the repetition of potentially costly battles.

Sheehan and Tibbetts studied face recognition in P. fuscatus and P. metricus. They trained the insects to choose one of two arms of a maze, each marked by an image (Fig. 1). If the wasp turned to the 'wrong' image, it experienced an electric shock, whereas choosing the 'correct' arm provided safety. The image pairs consisted of normal wasp faces, manipulated wasp faces, simple geometric patterns or caterpillars--the...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A278631225