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Essentially this means they can work out that if is X is greater than Y, and Y is greater than Z, X is greater than Z -- an ability that was thought to be a key human trait for thousands of years. Scientists have shown that vertebrate animals such as birds, monkeys and fish also have this ability, known as transitive inference (TI).
Elizabeth Tibbetts, an evolutionary biologist at the University, has found the first evidence of TI in an invertebrate animal -- namely the paper wasp.
A previous study investigated TI in honeybees, which failed the test, with their small nervous system thought to be a possible explanation.
Paper wasps have a similar-sized nervous system to honeybees, and both insects have brains about the same size as a grain of rice.
However paper wasps show more complex social behaviors.
Tibbetts was intrigued to discover whether these behaviors had any bearing on TI, and investigated by training wasps to discriminate between different pairs of colors.
She found the wasps quickly and accurately learned the pairs, and were later able to use what they had learned to organize a hierarchy of colors when confronted with new pairs of colors.
"This study adds to a growing body of evidence that the miniature nervous systems of insects do not limit sophisticated behaviors," Tibbetts said in the release.
"We're not saying that wasps used logical deduction to solve this problem, but they seem to use known relationships to make inferences about unknown relationships."
"Our findings suggest that the capacity for complex behavior may be shaped by the social environment in which behaviors are beneficial, rather than being strictly limited by brain size," said Tibbetts, who has been researching wasp behavior for 20 years.
"The paper wasps in the study are more flexible than many wasps (or indeed honey bees) in their ability to transition from being workers to queens, so dominance hierarchies are important to these paper wasps as the workers can become the queens, whereas a worker honey bee can never become a queen."
" If a wasp saw Jane win a fight with Lisa and that wasp had previously won a fight with Jane, the wasp could infer that she could probably beat Lisa," said Tibbetts, who added that other animals use TI in this way during social interactions.
Tibbetts also showed that paper wasps can recognize variations in facial markings and are more aggressive toward wasps with unfamiliar markings.