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A socially enforced signal of quality in a paper wasp


Organisms use signals of quality to communicate information about aspects of their relative phenotypic and genetic constitution1,2,3,4. Badges of status5,6,7 are a subset of signals of quality that reveal information about an individual's size and dominance. In general, signals of quality require high and differential costs to remain honest1,2 (that is, prevent low-quality cheaters from exploiting any fitness benefits associated with communicating high quality). The theoretically required costs for badges of status remain controversial because the development (or ‘production’) of such signals often seems to be relatively cost-free5,6,8. One important hypothesis is that such signals impose social (or ‘maintenance’) costs incurred through repeated agonistic interactions with other individuals9,10,11,12. However, convincing empirical evidence for social costs remains elusive6,7. Here we report social costs in a previously undescribed badge of status: the highly variable black facial patterns of female paper wasps, Polistes dominulus. Facial patterns strongly predict body size and social dominance. Moreover, in staged contests between pairs of unfamiliar wasps, subordinate wasps with experimentally altered facial features (‘cheaters’) received considerably more aggression from the dominant than did sham controls, indicating that facial patterns are signals and that dishonest signalling imposes social costs.

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Figure 1: Portraits of nine P. dominulus foundresses collected in Ithaca, New York, representing some of the diversity in facial patterns.
Figure 2: Head width versus clypeus variability.
Figure 3: Relationship between pigment deposition and dominance in unmanipulated wasps (paired by mass).
Figure 4: Relationship between post-dominance mount rate by alpha versus beta's badge brokenness.
Figure 5: Dominance behaviour in trials where one wasp's facial appearance was experimentally manipulated.


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Thanks to M. Andrade, P. Buston, B. Daley, C. Gilbert, A. Houde, D. Lank, K. McGraw, H. K. Reeve, T. Seeley, P. Sherman, W. Gronenberg and the FAB evolution group (S.F.U.) for helpful comments on the manuscript, D. Lank for assistance with the statistical analysis, W. Gronenberg and H. K. Reeve for research support and L. Marakon for research assistance. E.A.T. was supported by a NSF graduate fellowship and NIH Training Grant. J.D. was supported by a N.S.E.R.C. post-doctoral fellowship.

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Correspondence to Elizabeth A. Tibbetts.

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Tibbetts, E., Dale, J. A socially enforced signal of quality in a paper wasp. Nature 432, 218–222 (2004).

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