Research with a sting

November 18, 2004, vol. 31, no. 6
By Julie Ovenell-Carter

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Pretend to be something you're not, and you may get stung by your peers.

That's just one lesson to be gleaned from a new study of paper wasps by evolutionary biologist James Dale, a post-doctoral fellow at SFU, and his University of Arizona colleague Elizabeth Tibbetts.

Their research paper, A socially enforced signal of quality in a paper wasp, published earlier this month in the prestigious journal, Nature, describes the dramatic facial variations in wasps and their role in determining pecking order.

The researchers photographed 158 newly emerged queen wasps. “All of them have a yellow face plate,” notes Dale. “What's variable is the size and number of black spots that cover it. Some have one spot, some have two or three. Some are quite small, and others are quite large.” As Tibbetts and Dale discovered, there is a correlation between those markings and a wasp's size and social dominance - the first known visually based badge of status in an invertebrate.

The wasps with more pronounced facial mottling tended to be more dominant, leading the researchers to question what keeps wimpy wasps from faking it by developing similar markings. As they discovered, there is no developmental cost to wasps to produce facial spots. “They don't need a super-abundance of pigment or anything,” says Dale. There is, however, a definite social cost.

Says Dale: “The status signals are kept honest through social enforcement. Wasps have a remarkably sophisticated social system. When two wasps meet, they will engage in a ritual where one will try to mount the other to determine which is dominant and which is subordinate. When we painted extra spots on some wasps, we found not only that their place in the dominance ritual did not change, but that after dominance was established, the cheater wasps were punished with six times more aggression from the other wasps.”

“Our best explanation is that there is some other information about wasp quality that doesn't match the altered face,” says Tibbetts. “It's the most conclusive evidence that dishonest visual signals can have social costs. If you fake it, you'll get beaten up.”

Dale suggests that human beings might take a lesson from the wasps: they do better when they don't pretend to be more than they are. “You need to back up your status with substance, or else be prepared to admit you are subordinate. If you claim to be more than you are - like a karate yellow belt who pretends to be a black belt - you're likely to pay for your cockiness with more aggressive interactions with other people.”

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