The science of swarms will blow your mind

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Here are two things you should do immediately. One: watch this. It's a jaw-dropping video of starlings in flight that will straight up give you chills. The swirling cloud of birds is called a "murmuration," and it's just one example of how animals in very large groups can engage in remarkably coordinated collective behavior.

Two: head over to Wired, where you'll find an equally jaw-dropping longread by Ed Yong on the science of swarms and the researchers who investigate them. As it turns out, understanding animals in throng could have implications that extend far beyond the animal kingdom. We're talking neuroscience, cancer research – maybe ever our ability to predict the future. We've included an excerpt below, but you'll definitely want to check this one out in its entirety.

The first thing to hit Iain Couzin when he walked into the Oxford lab where he kept his locusts was the smell, like a stale barn full of old hay. The second, third, and fourth things to hit him were locusts. The insects frequently escaped their cages and careened into the faces of scientists and lab techs. The room was hot and humid, and the constant commotion of 20,000 bugs produced a miasma of aerosolized insect exoskeleton. Many of the staff had to wear respirators to avoid developing severe allergies. “It wasn’t the easiest place to do science,” Couzin says.

In the mid-2000s that lab was, however, one of the only places on earth to do the kind of science Couzin wanted. He didn’t care about locusts, per se—Couzin studies collective behavior. That’s swarms, flocks, schools, colonies … anywhere the actions of individuals turn into the behaviors of a group. Biologists had already teased apart the anatomy of locusts in detail, describing their transition from wingless green loners at birth to flying black-and-yellow adults. But you could dissect one after another and still never figure out why they blacken the sky in mile-wide plagues. Few people had looked at how locusts swarm since the 1960s—it was, frankly, too hard. So no one knew how a small, chaotic group of stupid insects turned into a cloud of millions, united in one purpose.

Now, thanks to new observation technologies, powerful software, and statistical methods, the mechanics of collectives are being revealed. Indeed, enough physicists, biologists, and engineers have gotten involved that the science itself seems to be hitting a density-dependent shift. Without obvious leaders or an overarching plan, this collective of the collective-obsessed is finding that the rules that produce majestic cohesion out of local jostling turn up in everything from neurons to human beings. Behavior that seems impossibly complex can have disarmingly simple foundations. And the rules may explain everything from how cancer spreads to how the brain works and how armadas of robot-driven cars might someday navigate highways. The way individuals work together may actually be more important than the way they work alone.


Read the rest at Wired.

Top videothumb by Digoarpi via Shutterstock; top video by Sophie Windsor Clive