The paper wasp is capable of abstraction, according to a study

The capacity for abstraction is not widespread in the animal world – in particular the abstract concepts of similarity and difference. Most species are able to distinguish one essential thing from another (recognize the cry of their offspring among others, or distinguish an edible food from a toxic food). On the other hand, establishing similarities and differences in various situations requires the use of abstract rules. Few animals are capable of this, apart from primates and a few other animals renowned for their high levels of cognitive sophistication (notably corvids, pigeons, parrots or dolphins). The paper wasp is now added to the list.

A capacity for abstraction observed in only one other invertebrate

For more than twenty years, biologist Elizabeth Tibbetts and her colleagues at the University of Michigan have been interested in the cognitive abilities of the paper wasp (Polistes fuscatus). In particular, they showed that these Hymenoptera were able to recognize individuals of their species (and their role within the colony) thanks to variations in their facial markings; thus, if another wasp displays marks that are unfamiliar to them, they tend to be more aggressive towards it.

In addition, with their amazing memory capacity, these wasps adapt their behavior based on the memory of past social interactions with other wasps. Finally, they would even be capable of a form of logical reasoning called “transitive inference” – which consists of using known relations to deduce unknown relations.

It has already been proven that paper wasps identify each other through the recognition of facial marks. The same team is now proving their capacity for abstraction. Credits: Elizabeth Tibbetts

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Concept formation, on the other hand, requires animals to learn and use abstract rules. This prowess had only been observed so far in a single invertebrate: the European honey bee (Apis mellifera). One of the most fundamental abstract concepts is the idea of ​​similarity and difference, from which stimuli can be classified as the same or different from an original stimulus. Tibbetts and his team wanted to check whether or not their favorite insect was able to integrate this notion.

It appears from their study that paper wasps are not only able to form abstract concepts, but can also transfer what they have learned through visual learning into a different sensory modality.

A general concept applied to other types of stimuli

The wasps were first trained to distinguish pairs of visual stimuli (two colored pieces of paper or two photos of wasp faces), identical or different. One pair of stimuli was associated with a mild but unpleasant electric shock, the other was not.

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In a second step, the insects were exposed to new pairs of stimuli (again identical or different), including olfactory stimuli (chemical odors): the researchers evaluated here their ability to avoid the electric shock by selecting the “good” pair – the one that was not associated with an unpleasant response. Result: previously trained wasps made the right choice in more than 80% of cases! ” Our results show that the wasps learned the general concept of similarity and difference and applied it to new samples and new types of stimuli. “said Tibbetts.

Of note, wasps were able to transfer rules learned via visual stimuli (such as colored papers) to new stimuli in a different sensory modality: smell. ” P. fuscatus can classify stimuli based on their relationships and apply abstract concepts to new types of stimuli sum up the researchers in their study. This is the first time that wasps have been proven to form abstract concepts, suggesting that the learning of abstract concepts may be more widespread than previously thought.

Less than a million neurons are enough

Learning concepts is the cornerstone of difficult tasks like language, analogy, and awareness “, underlined Chloe Weise, co-author of the study. Even the bee and the wasp – whose brain contains less than a million neurons (a tiny number compared to the 85 billion neurons of the human brain) – are able to learn concepts, which proves that the size of their nervous system does not limit sophisticated behaviors.

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The fact that wasps applied the concept of similarity and difference to all sensory modalities is all the more remarkable. By way of comparison, the brain of pigeons, for example, has 310 million neurons, and that of macaques, 6 billion neurons; these two species are also able to grasp the concepts of similarity and difference.

Interestingly, however, the paper wasps used in this study were more than 80% successful in making correct choices after training with only eight trials with eight pairs of stimuli; pigeons, on the other hand, need a hundred unique stimuli and thousands of trials to learn the concepts of “same” and “different,” Tibbetts says. But the specialist points out that the superior performance of the wasps may simply be due to their learning: the team has indeed taken care to select biologically relevant stimuli – colors, faces of conspecifics and smells – which play a major role. in the natural behavior of wasps.

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