Security Pie

The ramblings of three security curmudgeons

What can nature teach us about hacking?

with one comment

We often find ourselves discussing the evolution of threats on the Internet. What initially began as nuisance by resource wasting websites evolved into server crashing mischievous hacking which evolved into real theft of data and resources. What started as scripts sent over email has evolved today into a complex echo system of insiders that get lured by emails into installing backdoor applications, zombies and key loggers. It is always interesting for me to see how nature resolves such issues in other systems, naturally (I apologize, I had to).

Why is it important? Perhaps it isn’t. But it always seems to me that nature tends to find the best (most cost effective) steady state that is achievable. Seek a better solution? Okay, but you will have to change the rules!

A recent animal planet special got me thinking about hacking in wildlife. Specifically, it was a story about a certain cane toad (Bufo Marinus) that was introduced in Australia in the 30′s to help combat a certain beetle that was eating the crops. As usual in these cases, since they have no natural predators, the toad population grew out of control. It is a problem of grand proportions that is sometimes referred to as the bane of Queensland.

Cane Toad (nice picture from frogwatch)

The cane toad is poisonous. The toad has glands on its back that secrete bufotoxin, a very potent poison that can kill or cause severe irritation in humans. Since it was newly introduced to Australia, it should take evolution many generations to develop an animal that can withstand the poison. Shouldn’t it?

Enter the crow. In Queensland, it has been observed that some crows have figured out the answer. Since the poison is on the toads back, the crows carefully position themselves behind the toad, and use the toad’s legs to flip it on its back. At that point in time, they can use their beak to puncture the soft underbelly and eat the tasty toad insides. As long as the stay away from the toad’s back, they are safe.


Crow and Raven

Who was the hacker crow that figured it out we’ll probably never know. How it figured the resolution we will also not know. But once that first crow figured it out, other crows watched and learned. And now word has passed into other crow communities across Australia. Australians now have a natural way to fight the menace of the cane toad (in addition to cane toad golf, cane golf cricket and other human inventions).

We build defenses and hackers find ways around them. Toads build defenses and crows find ways around them. Perhaps the term “cat and mouse” should be reevaluated to “toad and crow”.


BTW – in 2007 a group of crows in Australia’s Northern territories (NT) were spotted eating cane toads using another method. Picking them up carefully by the leg, flying up with them and killing them by throwing them to the ground. Cane Toad vulnerability #2 discovered. Seems like hackers in the natural world are everywhere. Toads beware!

Written by assafl

August 30th, 2008 at 10:04 pm

Posted in Uncategorized