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Bad Insect! Paper Wasps That Cheat Get Punished, Too

Jul 08, 2016 04:20 AM EDT

Organisms often use body movements to interact and relay information with their buddies, and paper wasps (Polistes fuscatus) are known to use facial expression to communicate, making faces extremely valuable to the species.

Paper wasps rely on facial patterns to recognize social standing among the females. It also serves as cues about their fighting prowess.

A study conducted in 2013 revealed that paper wasps are smart enough to recognize and remember other faces of their own kind.

With the aim to understand deeply the way paper wasps react to various forms of signals and how facial patterns affect social interactions, a group of researchers conducted a study that provides a new perception on honest communication.

Published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the new study revealed that paper wasps that convey dishonest signals are "aggressively" punished.

"Why don't animals cheat by signaling that they are strong when they are actually weak? In paper wasps, we found that inaccurate signaling produces a cascade of costly social and physiological effects," said University of Michigan evolutionary biologist Elizabeth Tibbetts in a press release.

According to the study, paper wasps that have a higher fighting ability have more irregular black spots on their faces than those who are weaker.

And usually, when a paper wasp sees another paper wasp with more spots, they avoid it to save themselves the effort and time fighting.

Queen paper wasps usually fight for authority and territory. During a fight, the queen that wins can take over the nest of the losing queen. The researchers used this scenario to conduct their experiment.

Together with her team, Tibbetts gathered queen wasps and painted a queen paper wasp with fake facial pattern to bluff other wasps.

They then set up a fight and found out that wasps signaling inaccurately high fighting ability received more aggression than the control wasps.

The Register noted that aggressive behavior was scored based on the number of mounts, bites, grapples and stings observed during combat.

Aside from extreme bruises, the researchers also discovered that the juvenile hormones (JH) of "bluffer wasps" decreased while the control wasps' increased. Science Focus described JH as chemicals associated with dominance, aggression and fertility in wasps.

More than physical beatings, it shows that dishonesty also affects their physiology.

Any changes in hormone levels may change an individual's evolutionary fitness, which explains why cheating is behavior that is rare in the animal kingdom.

Paper wasps, according to Texas A&M University, are an inch-long, slender, narrow-waisted type of wasps often found on flowers, particularly from goldenrod in late fall.

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