How Do Animals Flock, School, Herd and Swarm as Synchronized Units?

©. Spine Films via bioGraphic

Scientists are unlocking the secrets behind animals' "collective behavior" using high-speed video and software to figure out how and why they do it.

A formation of birds takes to the sky, a massive shimmer of silver swims in unison at the aquarium, a cloud of bees moves as one to follow their queen. To see such a thing is dazzling; synchronized performances that bring to mind Busby Berkeley's elaborate musical productions of the 1930s. But even better, because they are animals, just doing their thing in the wild.


© Spine Films via bioGraphic

The how and why behind these collective behaviors have long stumped scientists. This kind of coordinated movement relies on incredible communication between members, figuring it out has been no easy task. But now scientists are getting some insight into collective behavior by studying the schooling of fish. Using high-speed video and motion-tracking software to better understand what's going on in the water, the new research may reveal a lot about the evolution of synchronized behavior across the animal kingdom.

In the video below, produced by Spine Films and shared with us by the California Academy of Sciences' bioGraphic magazine, scientist Iain Couzin talks about the research and its broader implications in better understanding everything from how insects swarm to how people react to the media.


© Spine Films via bioGraphic

"Collective behavior is all around us; we see bird flocks, fish schools, animal herds," Couzin explains. "And what really defines these systems is that there is no global orchestrating power. The individual units are locally communicating with each other. And yet remarkably through these types of communication we get animal groups being able to synchronize their motion and respond to predators in a way that we just couldn't possible imagine."

"We can learn something by understanding the dynamics of schooling fish and really then apply that to a wide range of other systems," he adds. "From neural dynamics to social dynamics."

In the video you can see how Couzin – with his colleagues from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology at the University of Konstanz, Germany – are using these novel techniques and technologies to help unravel some of the mysteries; with bonus points for majestic footage of animals acting as one.

Learn more at bioGraphic.