Very few animals, mostly humans and other primates, are known to have a special ability to recognize each other's faces. How is this impressive feat of learning accomplished? Until now, technical limitations have made it difficult to study the ways in which animals' brains and genes permit them to recognize faces. Here the researchers are taking advantage of what some may consider a surprising model for this, insects, to delve into how facial recognition works on the level of brains and genes. The researchers have shown that several species of social paper wasps (Polistes) possess the ability to recognize individual faces. Polistes fuscatus wasps have striking variation in facial color patterns and they can learn faces much more readily than other visual patterns. In contrast a closely related species, Polistes metricus, does not have facial variation and lacks the special ability to learn faces more readily than other patterns. These two species with contrasting facial recognition abilities provide a unique opportunity to study the relationship between genes, brains and this ability. In collaboration with Dr. Elizabeth Tibbetts, wasps of each species are trained to recognize faces or non-face patterns. Dr. Toth and Ms. Berens will use "next generation" sequencing to measure the activity of thousands of genes in these wasps' brains to determine whether there are particular genes associated with facial recognition. The team will then manipulate gene activity in wasps' brains in order to determine whether such a change can improve or impair wasps' facial recognition abilities. Understanding the interplay between brains, genes, and facial recognition will be of benefit to human health since disordered facial recognition can impair human social interactions. This project is significant because it will use the paper wasp model to provide the first in-depth genetic analysis of a sophisticated form of learning that has been difficult to study in detail in humans and other primates.

RNA data will be deposited at ArrayExpress (

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Integrative Organismal Systems (IOS)
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Tamra Mendelson
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Iowa State University
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