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Animal crowd control: the 'collective mind', locust cannibalism and other insights


7 August 2012

Professor Iain Couzin: "These are truly some of the most amazing sights in nature when animals move in huge crowds."
Professor Iain Couzin: "These are truly some of the most amazing sights in nature when animals move in huge crowds."

Discover the principles underlying how shoals swim in synch, flocks fly in formation and herds hurry in harmony - in other words, how big groups of animals move in a coordinated fashion - when Professor Iain Couzin, from Princeton University, USA, presents a free public talk at the University of Sydney this Wednesday 8 August.

Professor Couzin will reveal what his team has discovered about the principles of collective behaviour.

"My research group investigates how individual behaviour contributes to group dynamics and how large animal groups can move in unison. We're particularly interested in the critical role that uninformed, or weakly-opinionated, individuals play in democratic consensus decision-making."

In this Sydney Science Forum titled 'Crowd Control: The Principles of Collective Behaviour', Professor Couzin presents amazing film and photography of locusts swarming, fish in teaming shoals and huge flocks of birds migrating, while exploring how they manage to coordinate such feats.

"These are truly some of the most amazing sights in nature - when animals move in huge crowds. My research focuses on how they are able to seamlessly move in unison as they do," said Professor Iain Couzin, from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University.

"It's amazing how a flock of birds can arc and ripple while descending to roost, and a school of fish can convulse as if it is a single entity when attacked by a predator," said Professor Couzin.

"We have this notion of animal groups functioning as a 'collective mind' where the group can exhibit complex and coordinated collective behaviours that are of a much higher-order computationally than the individuals in the group are capable of.

"Think about the sensory range and cognitive capacity of a single locust - it's just an insect - but when they swarm, they are able to effectively disseminate directional information through the group and detect all sorts of environmental cues over a large area, that wouldn't be accessible to any individual locust."

Collective behaviours in animals result from social interactions among individuals, which is great for scientists, Professor Couzin explains, because these interactions are both observable and manipulable. Animal groups are ideal subjects with which to develop and test mathematical models that link the behaviour of small components with the functioning and overall efficiency of their dynamic group-level properties.

"Animal groups provide unrivalled opportunities to quantify the behaviour of individual components within the context of the collective, which means our findings have implications beyond animal groups and into all sorts of other collective organisations, like the billions of interconnected cells communicating with chemical and electrical signals in our brains, or how traffic flows on congested roads."

Working with Professor Steve Simpson, from the University of Sydney's School of Biological Sciences, Professor Couzin has found that cannibalism drives locust swarms, with each individual seeking to eat locusts in front of it and escape from locusts behind it, driving the group forwards.

This Sydney Science Forum is funded by the School of Biological Sciences' annual Murray Lecture, which brings an internationally noted academic to the University of Sydney to present a public talk and participate in mentoring activities for postgraduate students.

After the Sydney Science Forum, join in a variety of related interactive demonstrations and experiments, as well as a cocktail reception.


Event details

What: Crowd Control: The Principles of Collective Behaviour, a Sydney Science Forum

When: 5.45 to 6.45pm, Wednesday 8 August

Where: Eastern Avenue Auditorium, Camperdown Campus. See map 

Cost: Free

Book now 


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