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Candidate genes for individual recognition in Polistes fuscatus paper wasps

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Few animals are known to individually recognize conspecifics, i.e. learn and recall unique individuals during subsequent encounters, and nearly all are social vertebrates. Remarkably, the social paper wasp Polistes fuscatus has recently been discovered to possess this ability, which is useful for remembering identities during competitive social interactions. We analyzed brain gene expression in staged encounters between pairs of individuals to explore potential mechanisms underlying wasps’ ability to recall familiar individuals using real-time qRT-PCR. We identified four candidate genes (IP3K, IP3R, Nckx30C and Su(var)2-10) that were down-regulated in the presence of familiar individuals compared to single wasps and pairs of wasps meeting for the first time. These candidate genes are related to calcium signaling, therefore, we treated wasps with lithium chloride, a pharmacological agent that inhibits calcium signaling in neurons. This treatment decreased aggression in paper wasps, but did not affect expression of genes related to calcium signaling. The results suggest calcium signaling differences may be related to individual memory recall in wasps, and we present four promising candidate genes for future study. These data suggest genes associated with dominance behavior may be co-opted for individual recognition, but further work is needed to establish a causal association with the behavior.

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Vera Zhao assisted with wasp rearing and behavioral trials in Iowa. Erin McCall, Griffin Smith, and Vera Zhao watched many hours of videos to obtain behavioral observations of wasp social interactions. Taylor Forrest collected wasps in Michigan. We thank Jennifer Jandt for providing the paper wasp photos. A.J.B. received funding support for this project from the Iowa State University Ecology, Evolution and Organismal Biology (EEOB) Department through an EEOB Graduate Student Research Award and from the National Science Foundation (NSF) through a Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (IOS-1311512).

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Correspondence to A. J. Berens.

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Berens, A.J., Tibbetts, E.A. & Toth, A.L. Candidate genes for individual recognition in Polistes fuscatus paper wasps. J Comp Physiol A 202, 115–129 (2016).

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