The Loom

Rules of the Swarm

i-f1f007120ad064709d76a81d8ebc2fa4-fishschool500.jpgNot much blogging this week–I’m heading out to California to receive the National Academies prize I wrote about a while back. In the meantime, let me direct your attention to my lead article in this week’s Science Times section of the NY Times. I wrote about swarms, herds, schools, gaggles, and other crowds of animals, focusing on one of the scientists who studies them, Iain Couzin. If you want to find out more about his quest to find the underlying rules of swarm intelligence, check out his web site.


  1. #1 Ford
    November 13, 2007

    “The reason may be that the ants have had a lot more time to adapt to living in big groups. “We haven’t evolved in the societies we currently live in,” Dr. Couzin said.”

    The implication that, given enough time, groups of unrelated individuals will act the same as ant families (groups of nonreproductive sisters, who can only pass on their genes by helping their mother, the queen, reproduce), is false. This story would have been strengthened by comments from someone who understands the difference.

    See also:

  2. #2 Carl Zimmer
    November 13, 2007

    Ford–Iain understands the difference, and I think my article reflects an understanding as well. I explain, for example, how army ants are relatives but mormon crickets are not, and their swarms are based on different evolutionary processes. There are plenty of other animals that form large swarms without having the close kinship of social insects–fish, for example.

  3. #3 BrianR
    November 13, 2007

    Wonderful article in NYT, I enjoyed it…thanks for the link to Couzin’s research website too

  4. #4 Blake Stacey
    November 13, 2007

    I got to see Couzin at the recent International Conference on Complex Systems; unfortunately, my pictures of him turned out rather blurry, because my camera decided to try auto-detecting its shutter speed.

  5. #5 Ford
    November 13, 2007

    I apologize for the tone of my comment, which turned out more negative than I intended. But I found it frustrating that after mentioning relatedness, its implications weren’t really discussed. Are there rules that apply equally to swarming by relatives vs. nonrelatives — if so, does that imply that relatedness is less important than we thought for other kinds of interactions? — or do they need to be analyzed separately? And so on.

  6. #6 Carl Zimmer
    November 13, 2007

    Ford–No offense taken…I have conveyed the wrong tone very often myself. And I certainly wish I had had more room to go into these issues, but space is limited in the newspaper. And this week, time is limited too. I’ll just say here that herds can be selfless or selfish, and genetic structure plays a big part.

  7. #7 Doug
    November 13, 2007

    I read Erica Klarreich, The Mind of the Swarm: Math explains how group behavior is more than the sum of its parts” in Science News Week of Nov. 25, 2006; Vol. 170, No. 22 , p. 347.

    I have not yet read original articles by Ian Couzin.
    On his webpage, Full publication list, I note the paper 32. Nabet, B., Leonard, N.E., Couzin, I.D. & Levin, S.A. (2007) Dynamics of decision-making in animal group motion, submitted.

    I suspect this will make use of mathematical game theory and control theory.

  8. #8 Patrick
    November 13, 2007

    “Each cricket itself is a perfectly balanced source of nutrition,” Dr. Couzin said. “So the crickets, every 17 seconds or so, try to attack other individuals. If you don’t move, you’re likely to be eaten.”

    This collective movement causes the crickets to form vast swarms. “All these crickets are on a forced march,” Dr. Couzin said. “They’re trying to attack the crickets who are ahead, and they’re trying to avoid being eaten from behind.”

    This is like something from Dante’s Inferno.

  9. #9 Ewen
    November 13, 2007

    Congrats on the prize. You should try to attend as much of the conference as you can. I was at last year’s meeting, and I’m still going back to my notes for story ideas.

  10. #10 David B. Benson
    November 14, 2007

    Jimeny Cricket!

  11. #11 Brian Baker
    November 15, 2007

    Mr. Benson– well said!

  12. #12 Alan Kellogg
    November 17, 2007

    A clowder of kittens, a murder of crows, an excitement of preteens.

    Anybody else have more group names, actual or just made up?

  13. #13 Jim Hu
    November 18, 2007

    Interesting new paper in Science related to this kind of collective action (blogged here).

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