Wasps can grasp abstract concepts such as ‘same’ and ‘different’

Wasps can grasp abstract concepts such as ‘same’ and ‘different’

July 20, 2022 0 By bimola

Paper wasps can be trained to choose between pairs of stimuli that are either alike or different, suggesting the propensity for abstract thought may be more widespread than we thought



Life



20 July 2022

Paper wasp on a flower

Paper wasps are smarter than they look

marcophotos/Getty Images

Wasps can tell the difference between pairs of stimuli that are the same or different, a task that requires the use of abstract concepts that only a small group of animals are known to grasp.

The ability to use abstract concepts – features that depend on the relationships between stimuli rather than features of the stimuli themselves – is thought to be a key part of more complex cognitive abilities. It has only been demonstrated in a relatively small group of animals, including humans, some birds, dolphins and one invertebrate, the honeybee.

Now, Elizabeth Tibbetts at the University of Michigan and her colleagues have shown that paper wasps (Polistes fuscatus) can also differentiate between same and different in a task where they were trained to recognise these concepts.

Tibbetts and her team placed wasps in a small box and trained them with either alike or different stimuli, such as two pictures of wasp faces, colours or odours. Either the alike pairs or the different pairs were accompanied by a small electric shock.

When the wasps were later presented with a choice of pairs of stimuli that were either the same or different, they would more often choose the one that hadn’t been accompanied by a shock.

“I’m torn between the idea that wow, it’s so impressive that this wasp with a brain that’s the size of a grain of rice can do this amazing thing, and then part of me is like, maybe this thing isn’t so amazing,” says Tibbetts. “In humans we think concept formation is amazing, but maybe it’s super common, and animals can do it in a very simple way.”

Wasps and bees diverged about 180 million years ago and are behaviourally very different, adds Tibbetts, so the fact that both display the use of abstract concepts suggests that this ability might be more widespread than previously thought.

“Wasps are consistently rubbished by people, compared unfavourably to honeybees and generally maligned, so it is wonderful to see a study that shows them to be a great deal smarter than we thought,” says Adam Hart at the University of Gloucestershire, UK.

Journal reference: Proceedings of the Royal Society B, DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2022.1156

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