Thursday November 11, 2004
Faking it is a dangerous game if you're a wasp. Try bluffing that you are a big shot and you can expect a good beating, scientists have found.
In the world of wasps status is written all over your face. The puniest, most subordinate wasps have fresh yellow faces, while dominant brutes have faces marked with black spots and specks. Where a wasp is in the pecking order makes a big difference. Wimpy wasps get less food, have to work more and get to reproduce less often.
So bad is life lower down the social ladder that scientists have never been able to discover why weedier wasps do not cheat.
"It's not like they have to grow huge elaborate tails like peacocks do to show off how good they are, it's just a few black spots," said an Arizona University biologist, Elizabeth Tibbetts.
Dr Tibbetts decided to find out what happened if wasps did try to pass themselves off as princes instead of paupers. After chilling wasps in a fridge to slow them down, she donned a pair of rubber gloves and painted the wasps' faces using model aeroplane paint and a toothpick. Weedy wasps were given new black spots, while dominant wasps had their spots hidden.
After their makeovers each wasp was put in a container with another they had not seen before to see how they behaved. The newcomers were not fooled by the charlatans.
"They got beaten up," said Dr Tibbetts. "Whichever was truly dominant would climb on the head of the more subordinate one and start chewing its antennae. The subordinate ones just lay there with their antennae down, looking very miserable."
According to Dr Tibbetts, whose study appears today in the journal Nature, the wasps' smell or behaviour must have given them away. "It shows if there's a social cost, status markings are more likely to be honest."
A similar effect might come into play with people, according to Dr Tibbetts: "Think about karate belts. If you have a really wimpy guy wearing a black belt, the chances are that sooner or later, he's going to get beaten up."