Research ArticleECOLOGY

Mechanical spectroscopy of insect swarms

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Science Advances  10 Jul 2019:
Vol. 5, no. 7, eaaw9305
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aaw9305


Social animals routinely form groups, which are thought to display emergent, collective behavior. This hypothesis suggests that animal groups should have properties at the group scale that are not directly linked to the individuals, much as bulk materials have properties distinct from those of their constituent atoms. Materials are often probed by measuring their response to controlled perturbations, but these experiments are difficult to conduct on animal groups, particularly in the wild. Here, we show that laboratory midge swarms have emergent continuum mechanical properties, displaying a collective viscoelastic response to applied oscillatory visual stimuli that allows us to extract storage and loss moduli for the swarm. We find that the swarms strongly damp perturbations, both viscously and inertially. Thus, unlike bird flocks, which appear to use collective behavior to promote lossless information flow through the group, our results suggest that midge swarms use it to stabilize themselves against environmental perturbations.

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