The success of social networking sites has illustrated the
importance of networking for humans; however for some animals, keeping informed
about others of their kind is even more important.
In a study published in the Institute
of Physics and German
Physical Society’s New Journal of Physics, researchers have shown that
swarming, a phenomenon that can be crucial to an animal’s survival, is created
by the same kind of social networks that humans adopt.
Since the 1980s, scientists have been programming computer models to
realistically reproduce flocks of birds, schools of fish, herds of quadrupeds,
and swarms of insects. However, the question of how these groups coordinate to
move together has remained a mystery.
It remains more of a mystery when each organism can only see a small area
around them, when they are affected by unpredictable changes in the
environment, and when there is no clear leader of the collective behavior.
Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Physics of Complex Systems, as
well as a U.S.-based scientist supported by the National Science Foundation,
addressed this problem from a different perspective: network science.
They used ideas from previous studies on opinion formation in social
networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, and applied them to a previous study of
120 locust nymphs marching in a ring-shaped arena in the lab.
Studies have shown that the decisions you make, or the opinion you have, are
strongly influenced by the decisions and opinions of your friends, or more
generally, your contacts in your social network.
Locusts rely heavily on swarming as they are in fact cannibalistic. As they
march across barren deserts, locusts carefully keep track of each other so they
can remain within striking distance to consume one another—a cruel, but very
efficient, survival strategy.
The study used a computer model to explicitly simulate the social network
among locusts and found that the most important component needed to reproduce
the movements seen in the lab is the social interactions that occur when
locusts, walking in one direction, convince others to walk in the same
The researchers state that it may not be obvious that animals are creating
the equivalent of our human social networks however this is the precise
mechanism behind swarming transition.
One of the study’s authors, Gerd Zschaler, says, “We concluded that the
mechanism through which locusts agree on a direction to move together
(sometimes with devastating consequences, such as locust plagues) is the same
we sometimes use to decide where to live or where to go out: we let ourselves
be convinced by those in our social network, often by those going in the
“We don’t necessarily pay more attention to those doing the same as us, but
many times [we pay more attention] to those doing something different.”