More Security Countermeasures from the Natural World

The plant caladium steudneriifolium pretends to be ill so mining moths won’t eat it.

She believes that the plant essentially fakes being ill, producing variegated leaves that mimic those that have already been damaged by mining moth larvae. That deters the moths from laying any further larvae on the leaves, as the insects assume the previous caterpillars have already eaten most of the leaves’ nutrients.

Cabbage aphids arm themselves with chemical bombs:

Its body carries two reactive chemicals that only mix when a predator attacks it. The injured aphid dies. But in the process, the chemicals in its body react and trigger an explosion that delivers lethal amounts of poison to the predator, saving the rest of the colony.

The dark-footed ant spider mimics an ant so that it’s not eaten by other spiders, and so it can eat spiders itself:

M.melanotarsa is a jumping spider that protects itself from predators (like other jumping spiders) by resembling an ant. Earlier this month, Ximena Nelson and Robert Jackson showed that they bolster this illusion by living in silken apartment complexes and travelling in groups, mimicking not just the bodies of ants but their social lives too.

Now Nelson and Robert are back with another side to the ant-spider’s tale – it also uses its impersonation for attack as well as defence. It also feasts on the eggs and youngsters of the very same spiders that its ant-like form protects it from. It is, essentially, a spider that looks like an ant to avoid being eaten by spiders so that it itself can eat spiders.

My previous post about security stories from the insect world.

Posted on July 2, 2009 at 6:11 AM16 Comments


Dom De Vitto July 2, 2009 7:43 AM

Aha – the TSA can leverage this!

If they fill all but one plane at the airport with sky marshals dressed like terrorists, the terrorists will naturally avoid those planes, instead pack themselves into the remaining ‘terrorst-available’ plane.

Then blam, the FBI swoop in and arrest the lot.


Hmmm, actually, considering the “dark-footed ant spider” case, it’s almost certain that the FBI would swoop on the wrong plane of fake-terrorists.

Nature’s great, but it relies on genetics (and evolution) to provide solutions. We have brains to assist with environment changes that generics can’t resolve quick enough.

Same applies to general security – firewalls triage vulnerabilities in the ‘interior colony’, protecting the high-importance internal desktops and even taking-one-for-the-team getting DoS’d, but ensuing that the interior devices aren’t impacted.

I think that security/survivability are the same thing, in different environments – threats vs countermeasures.

Hmmm, but your blog made me think, once again.

Wally July 2, 2009 8:26 AM

I find it amusing that each of these articles makes it sound like each particular mechanism takes place due to conscious effort by the individual specimen rather than the result of natural selection. I guess anthropomorphism makes for better copy.

moo July 2, 2009 9:58 AM

Its still interesting… Does it matter why insects do it, as long as it works?

C July 2, 2009 11:29 AM

Dark-footed ant spiders are some twisted little arachnoids!

So in terms of security, an attacker is disguising his packets so a system doesn’t detect him just so he can attack a system…

I give up, I tried 🙂

mcb July 2, 2009 11:29 AM

@ Kent Brockman

When you said “overlords” I’m sure you meant “protectors” (to paraphrase Jonathan Coulton).

bobble-head July 2, 2009 5:37 PM

Another thing to remember is that natural selection culls individuals at different rates, which affects rates of gene expression in populations. As long as the genes persist in the population, it can be a win for the genes, even if it’s a lose for the individual. A human will generally consider the culling of an individual to be a detriment, especially if the individual being culled is the one doing the considering.

Clive Robinson July 2, 2009 5:51 PM

@ Bruce,

You left out “being owned”

There is a parasite that like many (tapeworms etc) has a life cycle that involves two hosts.

One of which is the common garden snail.

The snail ingests the parasite which grows inside it and develops.

At some point it works it’s way up into the left eye stalk of the snail and makes the snail go to a visable place. The parasite makes it’s self highly visable to attract birds. Which eat the snail and ingest the parasite to continue the cycle.

What is not understood is why it is always the same eye stalk and how it takes control of the snail so that it becomes a meal for a bird.

Clive Robinson July 2, 2009 6:25 PM

Sorry I forgot to mention the snail parasite in my above post, it’s,

Leucochloridium paradoxum

(Technicaly it’s not a parasite but a “parasoid” as it kills it’s host as do the young of creatures like the digger wasp).

As I had to go and look it up (my memory and spelling leaving more than a little to be desired…) I dug up a couple of refrences for it,

Leucochloridium’s life cycle is shown in great detail in David Attenborough’s TimeLife video “Living Together”.

There was also an article in Scientific American with some rather good pictures of a snail with it in it’s eye stalk and the display it puts on to atract a bird,

Rennie, J. “Trends in Parasitology: Living Together” Scientific American January, 1992 pp 123-133.

Clive Robinson July 2, 2009 6:34 PM

Oh and there is also the “sea cucmber” as is fairly well known it has a defense mechanisum where it disgorges it’s dietry tract into the water as a method of dealing with preditors (you can also eat them, but like snails you need a lot of garlic to make them taste like anything than a mouth full of frog spawn).

Which reminds me, you can eat the common garden snail but I would not advise it for two reasons,

1, Slow acting poisons put down by gardeners.

2, They might have a parasite in them which would end up in you.

Jess July 2, 2009 11:11 PM

@mcb, in straining to make a fairly obscure reference you actually missed a much more obvious one.

Innokentiy Ivanov July 3, 2009 1:48 AM

It’s quite interesting (2 of the 3 referenced samples illustrate it) that the Nature does not reject “security through obscurity” postulate, unlike most of cryptographers ;).

Nick July 3, 2009 8:37 AM

Daniel Dennett’s concept of the “intentional stance”* is an insightful rationale for the widespread use of anthropomorphism in understanding non-human things. We have huge chunks of our brain devoted to understanding other people since other people have been such of huge part of our environment for millennia. Leveraging that machinery in order to better understand other things is the kind of efficient repurposing of existing resources that Mother Nature loves.

Don Fitch July 5, 2009 10:49 PM

There’s a small butterfly that lays its eggs on the leaves of vines of the genus Passiflora, which the larvae then devour. It lays two eggs (IIRC) per leaf, and skips leaves that already have eggs on them. There is a common/weed (here in Southern California) species of Passiflora that produces leaves containing two white bumps that apparently look enough like those eggs to fool the female butterflies. Or rather, most of them — a fair number of the butterflies are generally seen fluttering around the plants — so apparently this particular security measure is only partially effective.

Thanks, by the way, for that link to Yong’s article — cabbage aphids are appearing on my four cherished plants of cauliflower ‘Romanesco’ (the fractal one), and now I won’t depend on the ladybugs to keep them under control.

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