You might think appearing tougher than you are is a good deterrent to avoiding trouble. But if you are a paper wasp, it could get you killed. E!Science News reports that paper wasps sport markings on their faces to show if they are tough guys or wimpy wasps. And if their markings misrepresent their true strength, it can cause a whole lot of trouble for the dishonest insect.

Evolutionary biologists Elizabeth Tibbetts and Amanda Izzo of the University of Michigan studied the biological warning signals developed by the paper wasps. Apparently the insect carries fragmented facial markings that show just how crazy it is going to get in a fight. Tibbetts calls the markings, "It's the animal version of a karate belt.” Dominant wasps have more fragmented facial patterns than their weaker cousins. And if a weaker wasp fakes its fighting skills, it is going to end up with a thorax thumping it won’t forget.

Tibbetts, a biology professor, and Izzo, a graduate student, decided to see what would happen when they altered the markings of the paper wasps. They made weaker wasps look dominant. And with another group of wasps, they left the facial marks untouched. But in this case, they jacked up the wussy wasps with aggressive hormones to make them tougher than they really looked. A final group of wasps had both their faces and hormones altered so that they looked and acted like bad boys.

The wasps were thrown into a gladiator ring via a laboratory cage and observed. As E!Science News reports, wasps who had mismatched skills and facial markings were punished while wasps whose faces matched their skills were left alone. Tibbetts and Izzo also found that the wasps that looked strong but acted weak were picked on more than the wasps that looked weak but acted strong. And the weak-but-strong-looking wasps weren’t as severely punished, though normal wasps still refused to submit to them.

Tibbetts and Izzo concluded that the point of these facial markings was to challenge rivals over resources. Paper wasps get their name from the nests that they build, which look like gray or brown papery material. Their stings are considered very painful and can be dangerous to humans, who can suffer from fatal anaphylactic shock if stung.   

For further reading: