A new, National Science Foundation-funded study provides the first evidence of transitive inference, the ability to use known relationships to infer unknown relationships, in a nonvertebrate animal: the lowly paper wasp. For millennia, transitive inference was considered a hallmark of human deductive powers, a form of logical reasoning used to make inferences: If A is greater than B, and B is greater than C, then A is greater than C. But in recent decades, vertebrate animals including monkeys, birds and fish have demonstrated the ability to use transitive inference. Paper wasps have a nervous system roughly the same size -- about 1 million neurons -- as honeybees, but they exhibit a type complex social behavior not seen in honeybee colonies. The researchers wondered if paper wasps' social skills could enable them to succeed where honeybees had failed. To find out, they tested whether two common species of paper wasp could solve a transitive inference problem. Their 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.
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