Certain species of wasps are able to recognize the faces of their congeners

While many vertebrate species are able to recognize and identify the individual faces of their congeners, this ability is almost absent in insects. Recently, researchers have shown that the Nordic wasp is well endowed with this faculty, allowing it to communicate better with its peers and thus to obtain a certain evolutionary advantage in a life in society. This discovery also highlights the possibility for cognition to evolve in leaps and bounds, and could explain certain evolutionary acquisitions of Man over time.

A species of wasp has developed the ability to recognize individual faces among its peers - which most other insects cannot do, signaling an evolution in the way they learned to work together.

A team led by researchers from Cornell University used population genomics to study the evolution of cognition in the northern wasp ( Polistes fuscatus ).

Research suggests that the growing intelligence of wasps has provided an evolutionary advantage and highlights the way intelligence evolves in general, which has implications for many other species, including humans.

"The really surprising conclusion here is that the most intense selection pressures in the recent history of these wasps have not been related to the climate, the capture of food or parasites, but to better treatment," says Michael Sheehan, professor of neurobiology and behavior. The results were published in the journal PNAS.

Facial recognition: an evolutionary advantage in life in society

Many vertebrate animals can recognize individual faces, at least under certain circumstances, but in insects, facial recognition is quite rare. This study explored how and when this ability evolved by analyzing patterns of genetic variation within species.

The few species of insects that can recognize faces share a trait: community societies with multiple queens. In communal groups with a single queen, such as bee colonies, the roles are clear and each individual knows his place. But northern wasps can have five or more queens in a nest, and facial recognition helps these queens communicate with each other.

Although research has focused on the wasps Polistes, Sheehan and his colleagues wanted to answer mainly the question of how intelligence evolves in general. “Our discovery indicated that cognitive evolution is not necessarily progressive. There are mutations that cause big changes. This suggests the possibility that a rapid adaptation of cognitive capacity could have been important also for other species, such as language in humans ”.


Evolutionary dynamics of recent selection on cognitive abilities

Sara E. Miller, Andrew W. Legan, Michael T. Henshaw, Katherine L. Ostevik,  Kieran Samuk, Floria M. K. Uy, and  Michael J. Sheehan

PNAS first published January 24, 2020


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