Wasps And Social Behavior: Some Insect Societies Appear To Share Brain Power

First Posted: Jun 19, 2015 04:54 PM EDT

How we think can ultimately be influenced by the society in which we live. The same is also somewhat true for wasp species, when it comes to certain evolved social behaviors that is. 

New findings published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B reveal that brain regions for central cognitive processing in social insect species actually shrank over time--the opposite pattern seen with sociality in other vertebrate animals, including mammals, birds and fish.

"By relying on group mates, insect colony members may afford to make less individual brain investment. We call this the distributed cognition hypothesis," said Sean O'Donnell, PhD, a professor in the Drexel University College of Arts and Sciences, in a news release.

According to O'Donnell, what this actually means is that information sharing among colony mates may actually result in a reduction of individual cognition in some societies. Furthermore, this goes against some cognition hypotheses with leading models of how vertebrate animals' living in more socially complex environments would require a higher demand of cognitive knowledge, otherwise known as "Machiavellian intelligence" by social brain theorists.

"Unlike most vertebrate societies, insect colonies are usually family groups--offspring that stay and help their parents. Although there can be family strife, the colony often succeeds or fails as a unit," O'Donnell added.

For the study, researchers examined cooperation of social structures in the social insect's habitat and how this might affect their brain evolution. They compared brains of 29 related wasp species from Costa Rica, Ecuador and Taiwan, including both solitary species and social species with varied colony structures and sizes.

Findings revealed that solitary species had much larger brain parts known as mushroom bodies used for multisensory integration, associate learning and spatial memory, which leaves an adequate amount of room for complex cognition.

On the other hand, the findings supports information that as insect social behavior evolved, their need for complex cognition in individuals actually decreased.

"The challenge now is to test whether the pattern of reduced mushroom body investment holds up in other lineages of social insects. Termites and roaches, and solitary versus social bees, are good places to look," O'Donnell concluded.

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