From a handful of birds to billions of insects, swarms can be almost any size. But what they have in common is that there’s no leader. Members of the swarm interact only with their nearest neighbors or indirect cues. Everyone follows simple rules: Travel in the same direction as those around you, stay close, and avoid collisions.
A swarm is a large colony crowd where decision-making, word processing, and maintenance happen quickly. It also protects from predators and gives unity to defend other groups. Animals that can swarm are larger in number and survive best for evolutionary view.
Why do animals swarm?
Animals swarm for various reasons, which can vary depending on the species. Here are some main points explaining why animals swarm:
Protection from Predators: Swarming can protect against predators. When animals gather in large numbers, they create a “safety in numbers” effect. It becomes harder for predators to single out and attack individual animals within the swarm. This phenomenon is observed in various species, such as birds forming flocks, fish forming schools, and insects forming swarms.
Reproduction and Mating: Swarming behavior can be associated with reproduction and mating. In some species, individuals gather in large groups to increase the likelihood of finding a mate. These swarms can involve elaborate courtship displays or behaviors that allow individuals to locate suitable partners more efficiently.
Resource Availability: Swarming can occur when resources are abundant in a particular area. Animals may gather large numbers to access food, water, or favorable environmental conditions. For example, birds may form swarms during migration when they find concentrated food sources, and insects may swarm around flowering plants for nectar.
Information Sharing and Communication: Swarming can facilitate information sharing and communication among individuals. Animals within a swarm can exchange valuable information about food sources, breeding sites, or other relevant environmental cues. This collective knowledge can enhance the survival and success of the group as a whole.
Environmental Factors: Some swarming behavior is influenced by environmental factors. For instance, certain insects, like locusts, may swarm in response to changes in population density, food availability, or climate conditions. These swarms can lead to migration or dispersal to new areas.
Genetic Predisposition: Sometimes, swarming behavior may be genetically ingrained in certain species. It can be an innate instinct or a result of evolutionary adaptations that have favored individuals’ survival and reproductive success within a group.
Birds, bees, fish, and ants have evolved methods of amplifying their intelligence by syncing and thinking together in systems. Biologists call this swarm intelligence, and it’s a natural step in the evolution of most social species. A swarm intelligence combines the group’s knowledge, wisdom, insight, and intuition and converges on optimized decisions.
Whether it’s a sublime ballet of starlings or an unstoppable infantry of locusts, there’s no denying that swarming animals are an astounding sight. Thousands of creatures act with a single purpose as if with one mind. But why and how do they do it? Is there such a thing as a human swarm?
Herring gangs in vast schools make it easier to feed on their prey, tiny crustaceans called copepods. Copepods can jump suddenly sideways in the water by several centimeters. A swirling, seething crowd of animals can also offer protection from predators.
Starling murmur Asians are a magical sight, and their intangible ever-changing beauty arises from a desperate need to survive. Peregrine falcons hunt the birds. They have thousands of eyes and ears on the lookout for an attack by sticking together. With each bird trying to mimic the movements of its neighbor, the result is a flowing and contorting mass of feathers. It makes it hard for falcons to lock onto any one individual.
The three evolutionary urges can explain swarms.
Scientists have been studying insect swarms to try and find the answers. Locusts swarm after periods of wet weather, with millions of individuals emerging from eggs buried in the sand. They then begin a march and a flight that decimates vegetation over hundreds of quarters. When only a few locusts are in an area, they wander around, changing direction and progressing slowly.
But when their numbers hit a critical threshold, 74 insects per square meter, they suddenly gain a sense of purpose and begin their unstoppable march. That purpose is survival to avoid getting eaten by their cannibalistic brothers behind them.
So locust swarms are chaotic, but there’s no more organized and efficient swarming than army ants. They can form three-lane highways and even bridges to get where they need to go. Two instincts control this wonderful organization.
- Follow the trail, and don’t bang with neighbors.
When a food source is found, an ant scout lays down a chemical trail for others to follow. The workers leave the nest sweeping the air with their antennae to find and follow the trail. But if they’re sensitive or brush against another ant, they turn away enough to avoid a collision without losing the scent. The result is an organized infantry marching in close relentless formation. All are based on two orders. The movements of army ants might be compared to an ordered march battle or a busy morning commute.
There are many benefits to traveling in a group like this. Small prey may fool predators by assembling a swarm that looks like a much bigger organism. Assembling in a large group reduces an individual’s chance of being captured. Moving in the same direction as neighbors save energy by sharing the effort of fighting wind or water resistance.
It may even be easier to find a mate in a swarm. Swarming can also allow groups of animals to accomplish tasks they couldn’t do individually. When hundreds of millions of organisms follow the same simple rules, sophisticated behavior called swarm intelligence may arise.
A single and can’t do much on its own, but an ant colony can solve complex problems, like building a nest and finding the shortest path to a food source. But sometimes, things can go wrong. In a crowd, diseases spread faster, and some swarming organisms may start eating each other if food is scarce. Even some of the benefits of swarms, like more efficient navigation, can have catastrophic consequences. Army ants are one example.
They lay down chemicals called pheromones which signal their neighbors to follow the trail. This is good if the head of the group is marching toward a food source. But occasionally, the ants in the front can veer off course. The whole swarm can get caught in a loop following the pheromone trail until they die of exhaustion.
The queen bee gives off the queen’s pheromone. It’s vital to the survival of the colony. If they can smell the pheromone, they know they’ve continued to forage, make honey, and tend to the brood. When all of a sudden, this workforce expands dramatically. They will swarm to find a new hive leaving the new queen and some workforce behind.
Frequently asked questions
What is swarm intelligence?
Swarn empowers teams to quickly converge on optimized solutions, greatly outperforming votes, polls, and surveys. It’s a real-time feedback loop system with everyone acting, reacting, and interacting. Swarm intelligence algorithms identify every participant’s real-time behavior, assessing the strength of their conviction and determining how the swarm should move at every instant. With any issue, the algorithms find a better path. It optimizes the selective satisfaction of the group.
What animals swarm?
Locusts, Bees, Desert locusts, Monarch butterfly, Army ant, Grasshopper, Termite, Schistocerca, Krill, Asian giant hornet, Western honey bees, Mormon cricket, Gull, etc.
Are human activities swarms?
There’s no denying that football crowds some beachgoers and sales shoppers after the single-minded and sometimes destructive power of a pestilence swarm. But on a biological level, they’re fundamentally different. The one factor that keeps a swarm moving together is the instant, automatic feedback between each individual.
If one moves, its neighbor moves to follow subconsciously. Humans don’t have that instant subconscious feedback. When one human move, their neighbor doesn’t, and things can get messy quickly. So many humans in a room don’t make a swarm, a somewhat chaotic crowd.
Humans are notoriously individualistic, though social, animals. But is there anything we can learn from the collective swarm-based organizations? When it comes to technology, the answer is definitely yes. Bats can teach drones to navigate confined spaces without colliding, fish can help design safer driving software, and insects inspire robot teams to assist in search and rescue missions.
For swarms of humans, it’s perhaps more complicated and depends on the motives and leadership. Swarm behavior in human populations can sometimes manifest as a destructive mob. But collective action can also produce a crowd-sourced scientific breakthrough, an artistic expression, or a peaceful global revolution.
Bouffanais, Roland, Design, and Control of Swarm Dynamics. SpringerBriefs in Complexity (First ed.).
O’Loan; Evans, “Alternating steady-state in one-dimensional flocking.” Journal of Physics A: Mathematical and General.
Ballerini M, Cabibbo N, “Interaction ruling animal collective behavior depends on topological rather than metric distance: Evidence from a field study.”
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