TIL paper wasps are capable of a thing that I didn't even know was a thing until I learned they were capable of this thing: transitive inference. "What is transitive inference?" you might ask, especially if like me you didn't know what it was. Well, transitive inference is a type of logical reasoning that allows you to figure out a relation between two things that have not been explicitly compared. You might remember this sort of puzzle from grade school: If Paul is taller than Suzy, and Suzy is taller than Bill, who is taller, Paul or Bill? A paper wasp could tell you, "Paul is taller."
Of course, you'd have to ask the wasp the question in a way she could understand, which is what scientists at the University of Michigan did. Here's a brief description of the experiment from Science Focus Magazine:
"To test for this ability, the researchers, led by evolutionary biologist Professor Elizabeth
Tibbetts, placed each wasp in an arena with an electrified floor which gave them a gentle electric shock. In the arena, the wasp was presented with two colours, one of which had a ‘safe zone’ in front of it where the wasp could escape the electric shock.
The colour pairs formed a hierarchy, with the safe zone in front of the higher-ranking colour. So, when colour A was compared with colour B, colour A had the safe zone, but when colour B was compared with colour C, the safe zone was in front of colour B.
Once the wasps had learned these pairs, they were then presented with unknown pairs, such as colour B and colour D. The wasps could accurately identify which colour had the higher ranking."
So why would paper wasps have such sophisticated powers of deduction, powers that honey bees lack? It might be because of their social structure. Unlike honey bees, who have equally ranked workers and a queen who, contrary to popular belief, doesn't run things, paper wasps have multiple females in a nest who are capable of breeding. These wasps compete for status, and it's probably useful to them to be able to figure out who's higher rank than who without having individual bouts with every wasp around. If Suzy can beat up Tina, and Tina can beat up Cindy, then Suzy will probably whoop Cindy too. And if even Cindy can make mincemeat out of me, I'm certainly not going to go messing with Suzy!
If you're interested in reading the study, it can be found here.
Full disclosure: I admit that I didn't learn this today, but I still thought it was a fun thing to post about for TIL Tuesday.