(ORDO NEWS) — Few things are more impressive or astounding than a large flock of birds flying overhead in a synchronized dance across the sky. Now researchers have figured out how these birds manage to soar so close together without colliding.
The scientists focused on starlings (Sturnus vulgaris), which usually fly in large flocks. They tuned computer models until they came up with one in which the birds on the screen behaved like real ones. The task was to find out how large flocks maintain a certain speed, even if individual individuals in them fly faster or slower.
The secret, as reported today in Nature Communications, lies in “marginal speed control”: Birds that fly between 8 and 18 meters per second will willingly slow down or speed up a little to keep up with birds nearby.
But they refuse to change the speed by a large amount, which can lead to the disintegration of the pack. This behavior helps the animals to keep up with each other, but at the same time not to slow down so much that flying alone or together becomes impossible.
These speed tests also help explain why all starling flocks average about 12 meters per second, regardless of their size, the researchers say.
They note that other bird species that form flocks are likely to use a similar strategy, and that terminal speed control can play a role in all sorts of collective behavior in biological systems, be it the movement of bacteria, aggregations of cells, flocks of insects, or herds of vertebrates.
The principles behind these coordinated movements could one day help engineers create drones and other robots that work in sync, they add.
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