Human face recognition software within the human brain is a complex bit of kit, it’s evolved to be an incredibly fine tuned and vital survival tool. Other species use a myriad of methods to recognise their friends and family including smell, but a recent study suggests that Polistes fuscatus paper wasps use a similar method to us.
In this experiment they used a couple of sorts of wasps, P. fuscatus and a less complex species – P. metricus. They set up a maze and used different wasp faces to signpost “safe zones”. They constantly changed the lay out of the maze, but always used the same wasp face to denote a safe area.
The P.fuscatus wasps consistently learned that the safe face was the one to trust and they would preferentially choose the route associated with that face. They repeated the experiment in the same manner but replaced the faces with different colours or shapes, but these symbols had no effect on the wasp’s path choices.
The P.metricus wasps, however, never learned the good face bad face trick. The scientists believe this is due to the social differences between the two species: Fuscatus live in colonies and have multiple queens who all want to mate, being able to recognise who you have already beaten in a fight, or lost to in a fight helps keep the structure. Metricus on the other hand are residents of single queen colonies so it is less important for them to recognise individuals.
Michael Sheehan, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor is now hoping to do more indepth studies into wasp facial recogniton. There’s been a lot of work done on mammalian face recognition, but this is the first study that points to it in wasps. The moral of this story is: Don’t muck about with P.fuscatus because it will remember you next time, but you can frig with P.Metricus as much as you want.