Diffusion in starling flocks

Flocking is a paradigmatic example of collective animal behaviour, where decentralized interaction rules give rise to a globally ordered state. In the emergence of order out of self-organization we find similarities between biological systems, as bird flocks, and some physical systems, as ferromagnets. In both cases, the tendency of individuals to align to their neighbours gives rise to a polarized state. There is, however, one crucial difference: the interaction network within an animal group is not necessarily fixed in time, as each individual moves and may change its neighbours. Therefore, the dynamical interaction mechanism in biological and physical system can be quite different, not only due to the gross disparity in the complexity of the individual entities, but also because of the potential role of inter-individual motion. To assess the relevance of this mechanism it is necessary to gain quantitative experimental information about how much individuals move with respect to each other within the group. Here, by using data from field observations on starlings, we study the diffusion properties of individual birds within a flock and investigate the effect of diffusion on the dynamics of the interaction network. We find that birds diffuse faster than Brownian particles (superdiffusion) and in a strongly anisotropic way. We also find that neighbours change in time exclusively as a consequence of diffusion, so that no specific mechanism to keep one’s neighbours seems to be enforced. Finally, we study the diffusion properties of birds at the border of the flock. We find that these individuals remain on the border significantly longer than what would be expected on the basis of a purely diffusional model, suggesting that there is a sort barrier a bird must cross to make the transition from border to interior of the flock.


About Giorgio Bertini

Research Professor. Founder Director at Learning Change Project - Research on society, culture, art, neuroscience, cognition, critical thinking, intelligence, creativity, autopoiesis, self-organization, rhizomes, complexity, systems, networks, leadership, sustainability, thinkers, futures ++
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