Entries Tagged "natural security"
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The wings of the Goniurellia tridens fruit fly have images of an ant on them, to deceive predators: “When threatened, the fly flashes its wings to give the appearance of ants walking back and forth. The predator gets confused and the fly zips off.”
Click on the link to see the photo.
The biological world is also open source in the sense that threats are always present, largely unpredictable, and always changing. Because of this, defensive measures that are perfectly designed for a particular threat leave you vulnerable to other ones. Imagine if our immune system were designed to deal only with a single strain of flu. In fact, our immune system works because it looks for the full spectrum of invaders low-level viral infections, bacterial parasites, or virulent strains of a pandemic disease. Too often, we create security measures such as the Department of Homeland Security’s BioWatch program that spend too many resources to deal specifically with a very narrow range of threats on the risk spectrum.
Advocates of full-spectrum approaches for biological and chemical weapons argue that weaponized agents are really a very small part of the risk and that we are better off developing strategies like better public-health-response systems that can deal with everything from natural mutations of viruses to lab accidents to acts of terrorism. Likewise, cyber crime is likely a small part of your digital-security risk spectrum.
A full-spectrum approach favors generalized health over specialized defenses, and redundancy over efficiency. Organisms in nature, despite being constrained by resources, have evolved multiply redundant layers of security. DNA has multiple ways to code for the same proteins so that viral parasites can’t easily hack it and disrupt its structure. Multiple data-backup systems are a simple method that most sensible organizations employ, but you can get more clever than that. For example, redundancy in nature sometimes takes the form of leaving certain parts unsecure to ensure that essential parts can survive attack. Lizards easily shed their tails to predators to allow the rest of the body (with the critical reproductive machinery) to escape. There may be sacrificial systems or information you can offer up as a decoy for a cyber-predator, in which case an attack becomes an advantage, allowing your organization to see the nature of the attacker and giving you time to add further security in the critical part of your information infrastructure.
I’ve talked about plant security systems, both here and in Beyond Fear. Specifically, I’ve talked about tobacco plants that call air strikes against insects that eat them, by releasing a scent that attracts predators to those insects. Here’s another defense: the plants also tag caterpillars for predators by feeding them a sweet snack (full episode here) that makes them give off a strong scent.
Mother fairy wrens teach their chicks passwords while they’re still in their eggs to tell them from cuckoo impostors:
She kept 15 nests under constant audio surveillance, and discovered that fairy-wrens call to their unhatched chicks, using a two-second trill with 19 separate elements to it. They call once every four minutes while sitting on their eggs, starting on the 9th day of incubation and carrying on for a week until the eggs hatch.
When Colombelli-Negrel recorded the chicks after they hatched, she heard that their begging call included a single unique note lifted from mum’s incubation call. This note varies a lot between different fairy-wren broods. It’s their version of a surname, a signature of identity that unites a family. The females even teach these calls to their partners, by using them in their own begging calls when the males return to the nest with food.
These signature calls aren’t innate. The chicks’ calls more precisely matched those of their mother if she sang more frequently while she was incubating. And when Colombelli-Negrel swapped some eggs between different clutches, she found that the chicks made signature calls that matches those of their foster parents rather than those of their biological ones. It’s something they learn while still in their eggs.
It’s worth noting that this is primarily of use to the chicks’ parents, so they know not to expend time and energy on the impostor cuckoo chick. Cuckoo chicks, as part of their evolutionary adaptation, kick the real chicks out of the nest, so they’re lost in any case. It’s the fact that the signal allows the parents to identify impostors and start a new brood that’s of evolutionary advantage.
As usual, you can also use this squid post to talk about the security stories in the news that I haven’t covered.
Marissa A. Ramsier, Andrew J. Cunningham, Gillian L. Moritz, James J. Finneran, Cathy V. Williams, Perry S. Ong, Sharon L. Gursky-Doyen, and Nathaniel J. Dominy (2012), “Primate communication in the pure ultrasound,” Biology Letters.
Abstract: Few mammals—cetaceans, domestic cats and select bats and rodents—can send and receive vocal signals contained within the ultrasonic domain, or pure ultrasound (greater than 20 kHz). Here, we use the auditory brainstem response (ABR) method to demonstrate that a species of nocturnal primate, the Philippine tarsier (Tarsius syrichta), has a high-frequency limit of auditory sensitivity of ca 91 kHz. We also recorded a vocalization with a dominant frequency of 70 kHz. Such values are among the highest recorded for any terrestrial mammal, and a relatively extreme example of ultrasonic communication. For Philippine tarsiers, ultrasonic vocalizations might represent a private channel of communication that subverts detection by predators, prey and competitors, enhances energetic efficiency, or improves detection against low-frequency background noise.
Self-domestication happens when the benefits of cooperation outweigh the costs:
But why and how could natural selection tame the bonobo? One possible narrative begins about 2.5 million years ago, when the last common ancestor of bonobos and chimpanzees lived both north and south of the Zaire River, as did gorillas, their ecological rivals. A massive drought drove gorillas from the south, and they never returned. That last common ancestor suddenly had the southern jungles to themselves.
As a result, competition for resources wouldn’t be as fierce as before. Aggression, such a costly habit, wouldn’t have been so necessary. And whereas a resource-limited environment likely made female alliances rare, as they are in modern chimpanzees, reduced competition would have allowed females to become friends. No longer would males intimidate them and force them into sex. Once reproduction was no longer traumatic, they could afford to be fertile more often, which in turn reduced competition between males.
“If females don’t let you beat them up, why should a male bonobo try to be dominant over all the other males?” said Hare. “In male chimps, it’s very costly to be on top. Often in primate hierarchies, you don’t stay on top very long. Everyone is gunning for you. You’re getting in a lot of fights. If you don’t have to do that, it’s better for everybody.” Chimpanzees had been caught in what Hare called “this terrible cycle, and bonobos have been able to break this cycle.”
This is the sort of thing I write about in my new book. And with both bonobos and humans, there’s an obvious security problem: if almost everyone is non-aggressive, an aggressive minority can easily dominate. How does society prevent that from happening?
Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.