Studies in sociology on Facebook and Twitter have been adapted to gain a better understanding of the swarming behavior and pattern of locusts.
The popularity and huge success of social networking sites has clearly 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 yesterday (July 15th, 2011) 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.
Scientists have been using computer models to accurately reproduce flocks of birds, schools of fish, herds of quadrupeds and swarms of insects since the 1980s. However, the question of how these groups coordinate this ‘swarming’ has remained a mystery.
Since each organism can only see a small area around them, it becomes even more mind boggling. This is because these animals are constantly affected by the unpredictable changes in the environment, and there is also no clear ‘leader’ of the collectives behavior.
Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Physics of Complex Systems, as well as a US-based scientist supported by the National Science Foundation, has attempted to address this problem from a different perspective: network science.
The researchers used ideas from previous studies on opinion formation in human social networks, and applied them to a previous study of 120 locust nymphs marching in a circle-shaped arena in the lab.
Those 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 because they are in fact cannibalistic. As they travel across barren deserts, locusts will carefully keep track of each other so they can remain within striking range to consume one another – it’s a cruel, but very efficient, survival strategy.
The study used a computer model to accurately simulate the social network among locusts and found that the most important factor needed to reproduce the actions seen in the lab is the social interactions that occur when locusts, walking in one direction, convince others to walk in the same direction.
The researchers say that it may not be obvious that animals are creating the equivalent of our human social networks however this is the precise mechanism behind their swarming.
Gerd Zschaler, one of the study’s authors said, “We concluded that the mechanism through which locusts agree on a direction to move together (occasionally 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 opposite direction.”
“We don’t necessarily pay more attention to those doing the same as us, but many times [we pay closer attention] to those doing something different.”
A video abstract, further detailing the authors work, can be viewed below and the full journal paper may be downloaded here.
New Journal Of Physics