Understanding behavioral patterns: Why bird flocks move in unison

Sep 15, 2010
bird flock

Animal flocks, be it honeybees, fish, ants or birds, often move in surprising synchronicity and seemingly make unanimous decisions at a moment's notice, a phenomenon which has remained puzzling to many researchers.

New research published today, Wednesday 15 September, in , uses a particle model to explain the collective decision making process of flocks of birds landing on foraging flights.

Using a simple self-propelled particle (SPP) system, which sees the birds represented by particles with such parameters as position and velocity, the researchers from Budapest, Hungary, find that the collective switching from the flying to the landing state overrides the individual landing intentions of each bird.

In the absence of a decision making leader, the collective shift to land is heavily influenced by the individual are subject to, such as the birds' flying position within the flock. This can be compared to an avalanche of piled up sand, which would occur even for perfectly symmetric and cautiously placed grains, but in reality happens much sooner because of increasing, non-linear fluctuations.

As the researchers explain, "Our main motivation was to better understand something which is puzzling and out there in nature, especially in cases involving the
stopping or starting of a collective behavioural pattern in a group of people or animals.

"We propose a simple model for a system whose members have the tendency to follow the others both in space and in their state of mind concerning a decision about stopping an activity. This is a very general model, which can be applied to similar situations."

Possible applications include collectively flying, unmanned aerial vehicles, initiating a desired motion pattern in crowds or groups of animals and even finance, where the results could be used to interpret collective effects on selling or buying shares on the stock market.

Explore further: New approach to form non-equilibrium structures

More information: iopscience.iop.org/1367-2630/12/9/093019/fulltext

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User comments : 17

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pres68y
3 / 5 (4) Sep 15, 2010
To me the bigger question is not "why" they do it BUT how they do it?
Somehow the movement "message" is transmitted in milliseconds to thousands in the group... how?
skand1nsky
2.5 / 5 (10) Sep 15, 2010
This isn't the only instance wherein a species can seemingly communicate with the collective almost instantaneously. Bees have been known to use techniques in 6-dimensional quantum manifolds to describe the location of food sources to the hive. Photosynthesising plants use quantum superposition to calculate the fastest / most efficient paths for solar energy transfer. Even Carl Gustav Jung used analysis from dog behaviour to describe what he called the 'collective human unconscious'. My guess is that flocks use some mode of non-local communication, akin to quantum entanglement, or information sent in superpositioned states which can then collapse to form coherent and synchronous flock behaviour.
Judgeking
3.6 / 5 (5) Sep 15, 2010
Wow skand1nsky, ever hear of Occam's Razor? How about the fact that birds just process visual info and can react a lot faster than we can. They see their neighbor move, so they do too. Their neighbor does the same, etc.
The only thing 'tranmitting' the message is light.
frajo
3.2 / 5 (6) Sep 15, 2010
My guess is that flocks use some mode of non-local communication, akin to quantum entanglement, or information sent in superpositioned states which can then collapse to form coherent and synchronous flock behaviour.
If you want to impress people by juggling buzz words from physics then you are definitely on the wrong site here.
JRDarby
2.1 / 5 (8) Sep 15, 2010
Just because what skand1nsky said sounds New Agey and invokes Jung doesn't mean it's wrong. As we come to understand more about entanglement we find more instances of it in unexpected places. Recently, much of this has been found in photosynthesis. We also have some evidence that the brain acts as a quantum computer on the neural level. Why not this?

Sure, there's no real evidence for what skand1nsky said now, but there's no evidence against it either, and invoking Occam's Razor to casually dismiss it is as intellectually dishonest as accepting his belief with no prior evidence at all (something I don't think skand1nsky did: I think he was just proposing one explanation among many, though I could be wrong).
skand1nsky
2.3 / 5 (9) Sep 15, 2010
Wow, scientific condescension at its finest! Sometimes I think PhysOrg is like some sort of elite clique, an anonymous herd of nay-saying pedantics who will snarl at the slightest mention of anything outside the realms of the empirical.

I'm continually astounded at how you pledge allegiance to scientific endeavour, and yet forget that the very underpinning of it is that we know *absolutely nothing* as yet.

You might want to revisit the idea that the universe, being fundamentally quantum in nature, employs the sharing of information and energy in ways that we haven't even begun to fathom.

I am certainly not bandying words around. Aside from having a Masters in Particle Physics, I've been a scientific warrior for more years than I care to remember.

It's doubters and radical sceptics like yourselves that give the quest for knowledge a bad name.
sstritt
3.3 / 5 (3) Sep 15, 2010
I thought the flocking behavior was explained years ago as an emergent phenomenon using cellular automata
bliskater
3 / 5 (2) Sep 15, 2010
The is danger here!!!!!!!
Understanding this will enable those with the means
powerful influence over American voters.

bliskater
1 / 5 (1) Sep 15, 2010
As tech makes coherent the chaotic flow
of thoughts, non-thoughts, and what
we think we know
Twittering twits and Facebook fools
gain order and flow through high tech
tools
Time for tiny eddys and flows
isn't there, inertia!
No time to grow

O2BOOM
1 / 5 (1) Sep 15, 2010
As tech makes coherent the chaotic flow
of thoughts, non-thoughts, and what
we think we know
Twittering twits and Facebook fools
gain order and flow through high tech
tools
Time for tiny eddys and flows
isn't there, inertia!
No time to grow


We are anonymous... oh wait.
Macksb
3 / 5 (4) Sep 15, 2010
There's an interesting article about swarms of birds at Audubonmagazine.org, entitled Flight Plan, by Peter Friederici. Among other things, he describes a big project, named starflag, that tracks large swarms of starlings with high tech video, multiple cameras, and software to analyze the videos, bird by bird. Cavagna and others derived a mathematical model showing that each starling was influenced by six or seven neighbors, and insisted (naturally) on open space directly ahead. The starling presumably processes this neighbor bird info visually, and perhaps acoustically as well. Relative distances within the group of six or seven vary, but the number remains the same.

It's a well written article with some science as well.

Based on a brief look, I do not see Cavagna's work cited in the paper that is the subject of this Phys Org article, but I may have missed something. The Cavagna research is about flight coherence, not takeoffs and landings specifically.
knikiy
3 / 5 (2) Sep 15, 2010
The is danger here!!!!!!!
Understanding this will enable those with the means
powerful influence over American voters.


Then we just have to decode the flocking behavior of sheep!
tigger
3 / 5 (2) Sep 15, 2010
Boids :-)
JES
4 / 5 (1) Sep 16, 2010
Applicable in financial markets
NickFun
2 / 5 (1) Sep 16, 2010
The birds lives are interconnected in a way we cannot directly comprehend. However, to the birds, it is not a mystery at all.
Journey
not rated yet Sep 16, 2010
There must be a collective decision for taking off from the ground into flight. That wouldn't be because of the perturbations or space around them.

There are many reasons why creatures do things. Sheep congregate in a close-knit pattern with their heads together and backsides outwards at the sign of a predator, for example, and that looks like a pattern.

The above research is not conclusive by any means.
Macksb
1 / 5 (2) Nov 01, 2010
In my earlier post, about 5 above, I mentioned research showing that flocking starlings are influenced by the movement of six or seven neighbor starlings in the swarm. One can readily see that this would lead to the coherent behavior that fascinates us. Now let me make a leap to superconductivity and superfluidity. Those may be viewed as coherent swarms. Perhaps the coherence stems from the same approach--each unit linked to six or seven neighbor units. Suppose further that the links are quantum oscillations, which synchronize in the manner that Art Winfree might suggest (if he were alive today, applying his coupled oscillator theory to physics). In that case, the multiple links would cohere until perturbed in a manner that exceeds some critical value. The most vivid example would be quantized vortices, although all of the special behaviors of superconductivity and superfluidity might well arise from the same basic principles: a swarm of quantized starlings, as it were.