Visual signals of individual identity in the wasp Polistes fuscatus

Elizabeth A. Tibbetts

Abstract

Individual recognition is an essential component of interactions in many social systems, but insects are often thought incapable of the sophistication necessary to recognize individuals. If this were true, it would impose limits on the societies that insects could form. For example, queens and workers of the paper wasp Polistes fuscatus form a linear dominance hierarchy that determines how food, work and reproduction are divided within the colony. Such a stable hierarchy would be facilitated if individuals of different ranks have some degree of recognition. P. fuscatus wasps have, to our knowledge, previously undocumented variability in their yellow facial and abdominal markings that are intriguing candidates for signals of individual identity. Here, I describe these highly variable markings and experimentally test whether P. fuscatus queens and workers use these markings to identify individual nest–mates visually. I demonstrate that individuals whose yellow markings are experimentally altered with paint receive more aggression than control wasps who are painted in a way that does not alter their markings. Further, aggression declines towards wasps with experimentally altered markings as these novel markings become familiar to their nestmates. This evidence for individual recognition in P. fuscatus indicates that interactions between insects may be even more complex than previously anticipated.

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