Don’t be too proud of never forgetting a face: It turns out even a humble bumblebee can distinguish and recall different human faces, say researchers who have conducted experiments on the surprisingly canny insects.
Researchers in the UK have found that bumblebees show a remarkable ability to spot the same human face even days after training.
The training consisted of showing the bees the very same series of black-and-white pictures of faces that are used to test human memory. The bees got tasty or sour rewards for choosing correctly and incorrectly.
The newfound bumblebee ability is likely connected to their ability to recognize different flowers, says discoverer Adrian Dyer of La Trobe University in Australia and Cambridge University.
On the other hand, the discovery is one of a long string over the last decade about various animals which all point to one startling revelation: It doesn’t take a huge human brain or even a mammalian brain to recognize individual human faces or do a lot of other complex tasks.
“The more we study these creatures, the more we find they have abilities like ours,” observed insect vision researcher Mandyam Srinivasan of Australian National University in Canberra.
From bees to wasps, spiders and even sheep, other animals have proven they can not only recognize our faces, but they navigate mazes, match objects and shapes and even associate smells with previous experiences.
“Sometimes I wonder what we are doing with two-kilogram brains,” mused Srinivasan.
Bumblebees, for their part, have brains weighing less than a tenth of a gram — that’s about 20,000 times less massive than the human brain.
The larger implications of such a small number of neurons doing such complex tasks are intriguing, but not obvious, says Dyer. There is the possibility, for instance, that someday humans who have experienced brain damage could borrow the bumblebee trick — whatever the trick is — to relearn facial recognition and other lost abilities, he says.
There are also big implications for the security industry and artificial intelligence, Srinivasan point out.
“Face recognition is such a hard thing,” said Srinivasan. “People are still working on it for computer and security systems.”
The bumblebee experiment implies there is a simpler solution to the problem that artificial intelligence researchers haven’t yet hit on, he said.
Implications aside, Dyer admits that his new study does seem a bit strange at first glance. In fact, that’s why he and his colleagues had to sneak the bumblebee experiment in at the tail end of another experiment at Queen Mary College in London, he says. “It’s not an idea you’d readily attract funding for,” said Dyer.
His report on the experiment appears in the latest issue of the Journal of Experimental Biology
Discovery Communications Inc.