Twitter and Facebook have been studied extensively and have provided some insights into the formation and maintenance of human social networks. But could this approach be adapted to gain understanding of swarming behavior in animals, say, locusts?
Apparently, it can. Researchers from the German Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems, in collaboration with a US based colleague, have used insights from human networking theory to study swarm formation in locusts, which can be crucial for their survival. Swarm formation and maintenance has been studied for several decades, resulting in computer models aiming to realistically model swarms, ranging from bird flocks to schools of fish. While a lot of progress has been made, how these groups coordinate to move together has remained somewhat mysterious. The fact that each organism can see only a relatively small area around itself, is affected by unpredictable changes in the environment, and the lack of a leader in the group, make things even harder.
Through using network science and ideas on opinion formation in social networks such as Twitter and Facebook, the researchers have taken a look at how locust swarms form. The computer model used simulated the social network among the locusts and found that the main component needed to reproduce a locust swarm (based on experiments with a laboratory population), are the social interactions between the animals. In the words of one of the authors:
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.
Huepe, C.; Zschaler, G.; Do, A.-L. and Gross, T. (2011). Adaptive-network models of swarm dynamics. New Journal of Physics. doi: 10.1088/1367-2630/13/7/073022.