Temperature differently affects body pigmentation of the paper wasp Polistes dominula along an urban and a wider geographical gradient

J Therm Biol. 2024 Apr:121:103840. doi: 10.1016/j.jtherbio.2024.103840. Epub 2024 Mar 27.


In insects, different pigments, such as melanins and pterins, are involved in thermoregulation. The degree of melanisation often varies along geographical gradients, according to the so-called thermal melanism hypothesis, i.e. darker forms are found in colder places because they can warm up more quickly. Similarly, pterins work as heat sinks and thus are expected to be more abundant in colder sites. Cities, which are warmer than surrounding areas (Urban Heat Island (UHI) effect), might also be expected to influence pigmentation, although studies are lacking. Here, we sampled workers of the social paper wasp Polistes dominula (Christ, 1791) (Vespidae) across an urbanisation gradient in an Italian metropolis and used iNaturalist pictures of this species across Italy to study pigmentation patterns at both urban and larger geographical scales. We found a lower yellow intensity of abdominal spots at warmer locations. Scanning Electron Microscopy strongly suggested that yellow colouration is due xanthopterin, known to be the heat sink molecule in other social vespids. Thus, wasps from warmer (i.e., urban) environments are likely to have fewer xanthopterin granules, in line with the lack of need for heat storage due to the local thermal gradient (UHI effect). At the country level, we found that wasps at higher latitudes had smaller yellow spots on the thorax and only two spots instead of four at higher altitudes, in full accordance with the thermal melanism hypothesis. In conclusion, climatic conditions seem to affect insect colour patterns both along urban and wider geographical gradients, although colour changes may affect different body parts and pigments likely according to different needs.

Keywords: Altitude; Latitude; Melanism; Polistes; Urban heat island; Urbanisation; Wasp.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Body Temperature Regulation
  • Cities
  • Italy
  • Pigmentation*
  • Temperature
  • Wasps* / physiology