New paper on the design of biological signatures of identity

Oct 3, 2023

distinctive prinia eggs laid by different females

Our paper “Repeatable randomness, invariant properties, and the design of biological signatures of identity” has been published in the journal Evolution. This study, led by Tanmay Dixit and carried out with Kuan-Chi Chen, Cassie Stoddard, L Mahadevan, Christopher Town, and Claire Spottiswoode, was a collaboration between biologists, mathematicians, and computer scientists.

We were inspired by digital signatures in cryptography to study two hallmarks of an optimal signature – consistency (i.e. one’s signature needs to be the same each time it’s deployed) and distinctiveness (i.e. one’s signature needs to be different from everyone else’s). Using a biological system – the highly variable egg signatures of tawny-flanked prinias, which they use to identify their own eggs from those of imposter cuckoo finches – we showed that there is a trade-off between consistency and distinctiveness.

How could hosts get around this trade-off? One way would be to possess a signature trait that is both consistent within their eggs but distinctive from others. Using approaches from computer vision and field data, we showed that the sizes of individual egg markings would be consistent but distinctive, but that prinias do not discriminate between eggs based on these sizes. This suggests that prinia behaviour is not optimally tuned to make the best use of their egg signatures.

Open access link:




Tanmay Dixit awarded PhD and starting Junior Research Fellowship

Tanmay’s PhD, entitled “Signatures and forgeries: optimality in a coevolutionary arms race” was awarded with no corrections. Huge thanks to collaborators and colleagues who were instrumental to this work, and to examiners James Herbert-Read and Graeme Ruxton. Tanmay will remain on the team and continue conducting fieldwork in Choma as part of the Junior Research fellowship that he is starting at Jesus College, Cambridge.

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Jess Lund awarded an R. C. Lewontin Grant from the Society for the Study of Evolution

The Society for the Study of Evolution has awarded Jess Lund an R. C. Lewontin Graduate Research Excellence Grant, which will enable her to expand her investigations into the fascinating lives of honeyguides. This grant is awarded to students early in their PhD programmes to assist them in enhancing the scope of their research. Thank you to the SSE for their generous support of our work!

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