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Scientists could learn a lot about the way natural systems work from the decidedly unnatural world of the Internet, according to research published earlier this year.

Two Canadian ecologists at the University of Windsor in Ontario have been studying the way that Internet viruses proliferate to better determine the progress of a real-world intruder – the spiny water flea, an insect that’s native to Russia that has been invading the Canadian lake system for two decades. 

Their approach might seem, well, a little buggy. But Professor Hugh MacIsaac and graduate student Jim Muirhead published a paper in March on their work in the British Ecological Society’s Journal of Applied Ecology which says that by applying the rules of network theory and taking insights from how information spreads across the Internet, they’ve constructed a picture of the way their ecological interloper operates.

Surprisingly, that picture, they say, is not too dissimilar from the movements of Bagle or MyDoom, two of the most pervasive Internet viruses to hit the Web.

MacIsaac, the invasive species research chairman for the university’s department of fisheries and oceans, says that rather than seeing a random dispersal of these non-native insects –which have spread to more than 57 of Canada’s inland lakes since the 1980s, their expansion in many ways mirrors that of the Internet virus.

For example, Internet viruses tend to spread fastest when they attack the most broadly used email programs and servers, moving downstream from these major hubs of activity.  Internet security companies can often nip viruses in the bud by tracking down their source and mapping how they spread,

Along the same lines, MacIsaac and Muirhead discovered that certain lakes are more likely to develop as ”invasion hubs” for their flea, since these lake-hubs attract more people boating and fishing.

By tracking boaters and determining their movement, MacIsaac says they “can determine which lake was the source of invasion.” 

Some might question how a technological manifestation like a computer-based virus could provide insight into the workings of an ecosystem.  But MacIsaac is quick to point out that the invasion of his water flea  –  much like the intrusion of an online virus  –  was crafted by forces outside of nature.  The spiny water flea didn’t move from Russia to Canada on its own power, but is widely thought to have traveled in shipping containers that moved from one country to the other. 

Similarly, the spread of the bugs has largely been facilitated by human intervention – fishermen transporting spiny water flea eggs on their gear and their boats from one big popular lake, to another that’s more remote.

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