Social studies of Facebook and Twitter have been adapted to gain a greater understanding of the swarming behaviour of locusts.
The enormous success of social networking sites has vividly 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 today, 15 July 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.
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 behaviour.
Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Physics of Complex Systems, as well as a US-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 direction.
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, said, "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 opposite direction."
"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."
From Friday 15 July 2011, a video abstract, further detailing the authors work, can be viewed at http://iopscience.
Notes to Editors
1. For further information, a full draft of the journal paper or contact with one of the researchers, contact IOP Publishing Press Assistant, Michael Bishop:
Tel: 0117 930 1032
Adaptive-network models of swarm dynamics
2. The published version of the paper "Adaptive-network models of swarm dynamics" (Huepe et al 2011 New J. Phys. 13 073022) will be freely available online from 15 July 2011. It will be available at http://iopscience.
New Journal of Physics
3. New Journal of Physics publishes across the whole of physics, encompassing pure, applied, theoretical and experimental research, as well as interdisciplinary topics where physics forms the central theme. All content is permanently free to read and the journal is funded by an article publication charge.
4. IOP Publishing provides publications through which leading-edge scientific research is distributed worldwide. IOP Publishing is central to the Institute of Physics (IOP), a not-for-profit society. Any financial surplus earned by IOP Publishing goes to support science through the activities of IOP. Beyond our traditional journals programme, we make high-value scientific information easily accessible through an ever-evolving portfolio of community websites, magazines, conference proceedings and a multitude of electronic services. Focused on making the most of new technologies, we're continually improving our electronic interfaces to make it easier for researchers to find exactly what they need, when they need it, in the format that suits them best. Go to http://publishing.
The Institute of Physics
5. The Institute of Physics is a leading scientific society promoting physics and bringing physicists together for the benefit of all.
It has a worldwide membership of around 40 000 comprising physicists from all sectors, as well as those with an interest in physics. It works to advance physics research, application and education; and engages with policy makers and the public to develop awareness and understanding of physics. Its publishing company, IOP Publishing, is a world leader in professional scientific communications. Go to www.iop.org
The German Physical Society
6. The German Physical Society (DPG) with a tradition extending back to 1845 is the largest physical society in the world with more than 59,000 members. The DPG sees itself as the forum and mouthpiece for physics and is a non-profit organisation that does not pursue financial interests. It supports the sharing of ideas and thoughts within the scientific community, fosters physics teaching and would also like to open a window to physics for all those with a healthy curiosity.