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Plants and wasps are smarter than you think

Seedlings know when they're from the same plant, and wasps get smarter as they get tougher tasks, studies show

A nest of the paper wasps used in the study (Polybia aequatorialis), taken in the field near Monteverde, Costa Rica. Colonies of several thousand adult workers live in a paper nest. Workers usually start with tasks inside the nest, then on the surface. They 'graduate' to become food foragers.

Courtesy of Sean O'Donnell/University of Washington

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Plants and pea brains can be smarter than you think. Plants like those that discriminate between siblings and strangers within their own species, that is. And pea brains like the tropical paper wasp that reorganizes its tiny brain to tackle increasingly complex tasks.

These research tidbits illustrate the fact that acquiring and using information is a fundamental aspect of organic life.

Plant siblings grow from seeds produced by the same "mother" plant. They cooperate with each other, but compete with strangers, in the struggle for food and water. That may be one reason why a batch of nursery seedlings doesn't always thrive as well as expected in the garden.
The biological distance between wasps and humans is vast. Yet, as University of Washington psychologist Sean O'Donnell points out, "some of the problems they face are similar to ours because both of us are social animals." Their brain power plasticity may help us understand our own ability to adapt to these "similar" challenges.

Dr. O'Donnell and colleagues at his university and the University of Texas had already discovered that the wasps (Polybia aequatorialis) enlarge parts of their brains when facing new more complex tasks. The research they now report in the online edition of Neurobiology of Learning and Memory describes how the wasps reorganize neural networks and interconnections as the occasion demands.

Some of those connections run for 7 to 8 millimeters in brains about the size of two sand grains. O'Donnell says, "That's packing a huge amount of computing power in a small amount of space." He adds that the animals need it because they "live in a complicated world and individuals face challenges that require a lot of brain power."


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