Some animals signal vitality through high-maintenance “badges of status,” such as the peacock's plume, whereas others have badges that seem to impose no inherent cost to the creature, raising the question of why such individuals do not simply cheat. Researchers surmise that social punishment of liars keeps such signals truthful. Now entomologists have observed the first unequivocal evidence supporting the idea. They discovered that female paper wasps with larger, more fragmented or blotchier black markings above their mouths tend to win in clashes for dominance. When the researchers painted the wasps to give them the markings of higher or lower dominance, they found that both kinds of liars were harassed more than unpainted wasps, indicating that the wasps frown on lying per se. The investigators, who describe their work in the November 11 Nature, suspect that some behavioral or chemical cue gives the liars away.
This article was originally published with the title "Face Painters, Begone!" in Scientific American 292, 1, 29 (January 2005)