Coevolution of visual signals and eye morphology in Polistes paper wasps

Michael J. Sheehan, Judy Jinn, Elizabeth A. Tibbetts


To be effective, signals must propagate through the environment and be detected by receivers. As a result, signal form evolves in response to both the constraints imposed by the transmission environment and receiver perceptual abilities. Little work has examined the extent to which signals may act as selective forces on receiver sensory systems to improve the efficacy of communication. If receivers benefit from accurate signal assessment, selection could favour sensory organs that improve discrimination of established signals. Here, we provide evidence that visual resolution coevolves with visual signals in Polistes wasps. Multiple Polistes species have variable facial patterns that function as social signals, whereas other species lack visual signals. Analysis of 19 Polistes species shows that maximum eye facet size is positively associated with both eye size and presence of visual signals. Relatively larger facets within the eye's acute zone improve resolution of small images, such as wasp facial signals. Therefore, sensory systems may evolve to optimize signal assessment. Sensory adaptations to facilitate signal detection may represent an overlooked area of the evolution of animal communication.

  • Received March 24, 2014.
  • Accepted April 11, 2014.
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