Identifying broad-scale evolutionary processes that maintain phenotypic polymorphisms has been a major goal of modern evolutionary biology. There are numerous mechanisms, such as negative frequency-dependent selection, that may maintain polymorphisms, although it is unknown which mechanisms are prominent in nature. Traits used for individual recognition are strikingly variable and have evolved independently in numerous lineages, providing an excellent model to investigate which factors maintain ecologically relevant phenotypic polymorphisms. Theoretical models suggest that individuals may benefit by advertising their identities with distinctive, recognizable phenotypes. Here, we test the benefits of advertising one's identity with a distinctive phenotype. We manipulated the appearance of Polistes fuscatus paper wasp groups so that three individuals had the same appearance and one individual had a unique, easily recognizable appearance. We found that individuals with distinctive appearances received less aggression than individuals with nondistinctive appearances. Therefore, individuals benefit by advertising their identity with a unique phenotype. Our results provide a potential mechanism through which negative frequency-dependent selection may maintain the polymorphic identity signals in P. fuscatus. Given that recognition is important for many social interactions, selection for distinctive identity signals may be an underappreciated and widespread mechanism underlying the evolution of phenotypic polymorphisms in social taxa.
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Vol. 63 • No. 12