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Standing out in crowd is beneficial


Washington: Standing out in a crowd is better than blending in, at least if you’re a paper wasp in a colony where fights determine social status, says a new study.

“It’s good to be different, to wear a nametag advertising your identity,” said graduate student Michael Sheehan, who collaborated in the study with evolutionary biologist Elizabeth Tibbetts, both from University of Michigan (UM).

In earlier research, Tibbetts showed that paper wasps (P. fuscatus) recognise individuals by variations in their facial markings and that they behave more aggressively toward wasps with unfamiliar faces.

Then last year, Sheehan and Tibbetts demonstrated that these wasps have surprisingly long memories and base their behaviour on what they remember of previous social interactions with other wasps.

That’s important in a species like P. fuscatus, in which multiple queens establish communal nests and raise offspring cooperatively, but also compete to form a linear dominance hierarchy.

Remembering who they’ve already bested and been bested by keeps individuals from wasting energy on repeated aggressive encounters and promotes colony stability by reducing friction.

Currently, Sheehan and Tibbetts wanted to see if individual wasps benefit not only by being able to recognise others, but by being recognisable themselves.

To investigate the pros and cons of being a standout, researchers altered the wasps’ facial patterns and set up groups of unrelated wasp queens, in which wasps looked alike and one looked distinctively different from the others.

The experimenters then videotaped encounters among the wasps and played the tapes back, recording and scoring all acts of aggression. They found that distinctively-marked wasps were less likely to be the targets of aggression, said a Michigan release.

“Given that receiving aggression is costly, in terms of injury or energy expenditure, these results indicate that being distinctive is beneficial,” Sheehan said.

These findings were published online in Evolution.