A team of researchers at Cornell University recently published a new paper titled "Evolutionary dynamics of recent selection on cognitive abilities." But that's a mouthful that kind of buries the lede, which is the fact that Northern paper wasps are apparently much smarter than we had previously realized. From the abstract (emphasis added):
Cognitive abilities can vary dramatically among species. […] Here, we investigate recent selection related to cognition in the paper wasp Polistes fuscatus—a wasp that has uniquely evolved visual individual recognition abilities. We generate high quality de novo genome assemblies and population genomic resources for multiple species of paper wasps and use a population genomic framework to interrogate the probable mode and tempo of cognitive evolution. Recent, strong, hard selective sweeps in P. fuscatus contain loci annotated with functions in long-term memory formation, mushroom body development, and visual processing, traits which have recently evolved in association with individual recognition. […] These data provide unprecedented insight into some of the processes by which cognition evolves.
On the surface, this might sound terrifying. But according to the researchers, these wasps have only thus far evolved to recognize each other, rather than That Human Kid Who Keeps Coming Back And Messing With Their Nest. As Michael Sheehan, professor of neurobiology and behavior at Cornell, and senior author on the paper, told Phys.org, "The really surprising conclusion here is that the most intense selection pressures in the recent history of these wasps has not been dealing with climate, catching food or parasites but getting better at dealing with each other. That's pretty profound."
In other words, interpersonal relations might have such an impact on an organism's survival that it could steer their evolutionary development. And that's pretty cool. In addition to horrifying visions of sentient wasps, this research could also help us better understand how any species eventually begins to develop a higher cognition. And that's pretty cool.
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