Security Systems as a Marker for High-Value Targets

If something is protected by heavy security, it’s obviously worth stealing. Here’s an example from the insect world:

Maize plants, like many others, protect themselves with poisons. They pump their roots with highly toxic insecticides called BXDs, which deters hungry mandibles. But these toxins don’t come free. The plant needs energy to act as its own pharmacist, so it distributes the poison to the areas that deserve the greatest fortification — its crown roots.

Maize seedlings grow roots either from the embryo itself (embryonic roots), or from the growing stem (crown roots). Christelle Robert found that the crown roots are especially important. They contain the most nutrients, and their loss matters more to the seedlings. As such, they receive the greatest investment of BXDs; they contain five times more of one particularly toxic compound called DIMBOA.

So, if plant-eating insects want to nibble on the most nutritious roots, they also swallow the highest amount of poison. Instead, they target the more lightly defended embryonic roots, which are less valuable to the plant. But the Western corn rootworm ignores these rules of engagement.

The larva of this beetle eats the roots of maize, corn and other cereals and it’s a significant pest that can ravage entire crops. Its success stems from its ability to turn maize’s defence against it. Robert found that the rootworm, unlike other insects, ignore the embryonic roots and head straight for the crown ones.

When Robert gave rootworms a mutant plant that couldn’t produce BXDs, it lost its interest in the crown roots. Rather than being deterred by the plant’s poisons, the rootworm actually uses them to track down the most nutritious meals.

The rootworms are immune to the poison, of course. Otherwise the trick wouldn’t work.

Paper, behind a paywall.

Posted on November 29, 2011 at 2:13 PM16 Comments


M November 29, 2011 2:39 PM

This reminds me of a comedian (can’t remember who) joking about thieves kicking car tires in a parking lot and stealing the ones with alarms.

lazlo November 29, 2011 3:22 PM

There’s a huge flaw here though, as a general approach. Defenses will be commensurate with the value to the defender, which may not mean much with respect to the value to the attacker. For an example, my homeowner’s insurance policy is valuable to me, but not to an attacker. (unless, of course, that attacker is the insurance company, and they’ve abandoned all pretense of ethics)

I S November 29, 2011 3:38 PM

Not quite. One does not defend something that is of value to you but no one else because no one else has an interest in it (assuming that it is unlikely to suffer from accident and that no one wishes to cause harm maliciously).

In general, one wants to defend to the extent that any further defense would cost more than the reduction in risk warrants. Therefore, what is at low risk (through being of little value to attackers) will be little defended compared to something less valuable to the defender but much more valuable to the attacker.

Timmy303 November 29, 2011 3:47 PM

When I played Stratego as a kid I would throw my brother off the scent by stacking all my bombs and high-ranking pieces in a clump on the opposite corner of the board from where my flag really was.

NZ November 29, 2011 4:25 PM

My wife and I had our bikes stolen from our apartment patio while we were home (a month ago today, come to think of it) and it rattled us pretty heavily. For many sleepless nights afterward I’d stay up thinking about all the ways I could have prevented that theft, and when I finally could sleep again the slightest noise would wake me up.

Most apartments don’t have security systems, but we’re going to install one. We don’t have anything very objectively valuable (even our bikes were old and rusted–I had bought mine for $5 at a garage sale) but the peace of mind is worth it.

Bob Staudenmaier November 29, 2011 9:36 PM

Indeed! And isn’t the REVERSE also true?

To deter theft, leave the most valuable unguarded. If possible, let OBSCURITY hide that which is most sought after.

GregW November 29, 2011 10:42 PM

@Bob, I’m reminded of a good tale illustrating your point that sometimes the reverse is true and completely abandoning your security (or even obscurity) defenses is the best move– the old story of Poe’s Purloined Letter.

Johnny boy November 30, 2011 1:57 AM

It’s interesting to think about security from a human (technological) sense, and from an animal/nature sense. Maybe there’s some insight and wisdom to be found from looking at the big picture…

LLw.g.n.r November 30, 2011 3:26 AM

A similar finding – using the toxin to find a plant host in addition to nutrition:

Journal of Chemical Ecology, Vol. 18, No. 7, 1992


“Many plant species contain specific allelochemicals that provide an effective toxic defense against herbivorous insects (Waller, 1987). Despite this, even a plant species that is chemically well defended may be attacked successfully by a few specialist insect species that not only withstand a particular plant toxin, but use it as a semiochemical to locate and recognize their plant host (Waller, 1987; Harborne, 1988; Rosenthal and Janzen, 1982). No examples of this have been reported for insect herbivores of maize, one of the principal agricultural plant species worldwide. We now report that an important toxin produced by maize and other grasses, 6-methoxy-2-benzoxazotinone (MBOA), is used as a semiochemical for host location by western corn rootworm larvae.”

Steve December 21, 2011 4:34 AM

@Bob Staudenmaier. I’m reminded of a large hoard of diamonds (I thing) which had to be sent from central/southern Africa to the UK. Inevitably there was a certain amount of publicity about this. The boxes had high-profile protection and were couriered to the UK. As you will have guessed they contained no diamonds which had actually been sent a few days earlier through the normal postal service. An interesting comment about this was that if thieves had managed to steal the boxes then it was too late to try and intercept the actual delivery. Another example of security by obscurity!

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