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 Portraits of four female Polistes fuscatus paper wasps
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Portraits of four female Polistes fuscatus (paper wasps) collected from a single

May 4, 2010
Portraits of four female Polistes fuscatus (paper wasps) collected from a single building in Ithaca, New York, by National Science Foundation (NSF)-grantee Elizabeth Tibbetts, an animal behaviorist from Cornell University. The image illustrates the range of color patterns seen in the species. A wasp's color pattern is fixed for her entire adult life. Wasps learn the facial markings of their nestmates and then use these markings to identify their nestmates as individuals.

More about this Image Researcher Elizabeth Tibbetts, a Cornell doctoral candidate in neurobiology and behavior, has found that the black and yellow coloring on the paper wasp is not uniform. One wasp can recognize another through facial and abdominal markings. This displaces the current theory that insects identify and communicate only through the use of chemicals called pheromones. Tibbetts has found that wasps can visually recognize individuals including relatives and nestmates through facial and abdominal markings and will visually reject unfamiliar wasps.

To better understand the behavior of a wasp colony, she focused on the hierarchy of the nest. Queens and workers form a power structure that determines how food is distributed, how work tasks are assigned, and who will be allowed to lay eggs within the colony. Tibbetts concluded that a hierarchy such as this would be simplified if individuals of different ranks had some degree of individual recognition.

To test her theory that recognition is based on external markings rather than pheromones, she painted the faces and abdomens of a few test subjects, altering their yellow markings. When they returned to the nest, the painted wasps were not immediately recognized by the group and were the victims of considerable aggression. Fights broke out among former friends. However, paper wasps also identify themselves by giving off a scent from their exoskeleton and because of this, the nestmates were able to distinguish that the painted wasps were friends and not intruders. Tibbetts found that after a short period of time, the nestmates became familiar with the "new" painted markings and the altered wasps were no longer considered a threat, thus backing Tibbetts findings of individual recognition. Insects are generally thought to have poor vision so the use of visual cues by wasps was surprising to Tibbetts.

Tibbetts study, "Visual Signals of Individual Identity in Wasp Polistes fuscatus," appears in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B (Issue 269). Her study on wasp visual recognition is believed to be the first study of its kind. Her research was supported by a graduate research grant from NSF. (Year of image: 2001)