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Studying Brain Size in Wasps...

Posted Oct 03 2008 12:52pm

..in order to assess whether social challenges lead to further brain development, or whether larger brains lead to more complex social activity.  This article reviews research into this question, where the researchers examined a type of tropical wasp in order to examine the relationship, if any,  between brain size and better functioning. 

"University of Washington researchers have found that key processing regions in the brains of both males and females of one wasp species not only increased in size with age but were also associated with being dominant. The study also showed different patterns of brain development in males and females. Certain subregions were larger in males and others were larger in females. This matched expectations based on males' greater use of vision and females' greater reliance on their antennae."

The article reports that at least in this case, bigger does appear to be better.  The drive for domination leads to increased cognitive capacity, which can be measured by increased brain size.  Another interesting section of the article:

"Do you get to be dominant because of a big brain or does being dominant drive brain size? That's still an open question and we don't know which comes first," said O'Donnell. "This study suggests the high cognitive demands of being dominant drive brain capacity and supports the social brain hypothesis. The next step is to broaden the scope of the research by looking at more species of paper wasps. We are interested in how brains evolve in concert with social evolution. There is the intriguing possibility that there are similar patterns across wide spans of evolutionary time. My goal is to get a bigger sample of social wasp species and examine this."

What is fascinating about this research is the continuing recognition that social challenges in the environment can lead to evolutionary changes, just like any other environmental challenges.  I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for more studies like this...

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