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Swarm behaviour


Swarm behaviour

A flock of auklets exhibit swarm behaviour

Swarm behaviour, or swarming, is a algae and are not self-propelled the way animals are. By extension, the term swarm is applied also to inanimate entities which exhibit parallel behaviours, as in a robot swarm, an earthquake swarm, or a swarm of stars.

From a more abstract point of view, swarm behaviour is the collective motion of a large number of self-propelled entities.[1] From the perspective of the mathematical modeller, it is an emergent behaviour arising from simple rules that are followed by individuals and does not involve any central coordination. Swarm behaviour is also studied by active matter physicists as a phenomenon which is not in thermodynamic equilibrium, and as such requires the development of tools beyond those available from the statistical physics of systems in thermodynamic equilibrium.

Swarm behaviour was first simulated on a computer in 1986 with the simulation program boids.[2] This program simulates simple agents (boids) that are allowed to move according to a set of basic rules. The model was originally designed to mimic the flocking behaviour of birds, but it can be applied also to schooling fish and other swarming entities.


  • Models 1
  • Biological swarming 2
    • Insects 2.1
      • Ants 2.1.1
      • Bees 2.1.2
      • Cockroaches 2.1.3
      • Locusts 2.1.4
      • Insect migration 2.1.5
    • Birds 2.2
      • Bird migration 2.2.1
    • Marine life 2.3
      • Fish 2.3.1
      • Fish migration 2.3.2
      • Krill 2.3.3
      • Copepods 2.3.4
      • Algal blooms 2.3.5
    • Other organisms 2.4
      • Bacteria 2.4.1
      • Quadrupeds 2.4.2
  • People 3
  • Robotics 4
  • Military 5
  • Gallery 6
  • Myths 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • Other references 10
  • External links 11


A diagram illustrating the difference between metric distance and topological distance in reference to fish schools
External images
Boids simulation
iFloys simulation
Efloys simulation

In recent decades, scientists have turned to modeling swarm behaviour to gain a deeper understanding of the behaviour.

Mathematical models

Early studies of swarm behaviour employed mathematical models to simulate and understand the behaviour. The simplest mathematical models of animal swarms generally represent individual animals as following three rules:

  1. Move in the same direction as your neighbours
  2. Remain close to your neighbours
  3. Avoid collisions with your neighbours

The boids computer program, created by Craig Reynolds in 1986, simulates swarm behaviour following the above rules.[2] Many subsequent and current models use variations on these rules, often implementing them by means of concentric "zones" around each animal. In the zone of repulsion, very close to the animal, the focal animal will seek to distance itself from its neighbours to avoid collision. Slightly further away, in the zone of alignment, the focal animal will seek to align its direction of motion with its neighbours. In the outermost zone of attraction, which extends as far away from the focal animal as it is able to sense, the focal animal will seek to move towards a neighbour.

The shape of these zones will necessarily be affected by the sensory capabilities of the given animal. For example, the visual field of a bird does not extend behind its body. Fish rely on both vision and on hydrodynamic perceptions relayed through their lateral line, while Antarctic krill rely both on vision and hydrodynamic signals relayed through antennae.

However recent studies of starling flocks have shown that each bird modifies its position, relative to the six or seven animals directly surrounding it, no matter how close or how far away those animals are.[3] Interactions between flocking starlings are thus based on a topological rule rather than a metric rule. It remains to be seen whether this applies to other animals. Another recent study, based on an analysis of high speed camera footage of flocks above Rome and assuming minimal behavioural rules, has convincingly simulated a number of aspects of flock behaviour.[4][5][6][7]

Evolutionary models

In order to gain insight into why animals evolve swarming behaviour, scientists have turned to evolutionary models that simulate populations of evolving animals. Typically these studies use a genetic algorithm to simulate evolution over many generations in the model. These studies have investigated a number of hypotheses explaining why animals evolve swarming behaviour, such as the selfish herd theory[8][9][10][11] the predator confusion effect,[12][13] the dilution effect,[14][15] and the many eyes theory.[16]


  • Mach, Robert; Schweitzer, Frank (2003). "Multi-Agent Model of Biological Swarming". Advances In Artificial Life.  


Flocking birds are an example of self-organization in biology


The concept of emergence—that the properties and functions found at a hierarchical level are not present and are irrelevant at the lower levels–is often a basic principle behind self-organization in biology leading to emergence in the natural world occurs in ant colonies. The queen does not give direct orders and does not tell the ants what to do. Instead, each ant reacts to stimuli in the form of chemical scent from larvae, other ants, intruders, food and buildup of waste, and leaves behind a chemical trail, which, in turn, provides a stimulus to other ants. Here each ant is an autonomous unit that reacts depending only on its local environment and the genetically encoded rules for its variety of ant. Despite the lack of centralized decision making, ant colonies exhibit complex behaviour and have even been able to demonstrate the ability to solve geometric problems. For example, colonies routinely find the maximum distance from all colony entrances to dispose of dead bodies.


A further key concept in the field of swarm intelligence is damaging crops. The largest swarms can cover hundreds of square miles and contain billions of locusts. A locust can eat its own weight (about 2 grams) in plants every day. That means one million locusts can eat about one ton of food each day, and the largest swarms can consume over 100,000 tonnes each day.[69]

Swarming in locusts has been found to be associated with increased levels of serotonin which causes the locust to change colour, eat much more, become mutually attracted, and breed much more easily. Researchers propose that swarming behaviour is a response to overcrowding and studies have shown that increased tactile stimulation of the hind legs or, in some species, simply encountering other individuals causes an increase in levels of serotonin. The transformation of the locust to the swarming variety can be induced by several contacts per minute over a four-hour period.[70][71][72][73] Notably, an innate predisposition to aggregate has been found in hatchlings of the desert locust, Schistocerca gregaria, independent of their parental phase.[74]

An individual locust's response to a loss of alignment in the group appears to increase the randomness of its motion, until an aligned state is again achieved. This noise-induced alignment appears to be an intrinsic characteristic of collective coherent motion.[75]

Insect migration

Cluster of monarch butterflies. Monarch butterflies migrate to Santa Cruz, California where they overwinter

Insect migration is the seasonal movement of insects, particularly those by species of dragonflies, beetles, butterflies and moths. The distance can vary from species to species, but in most cases these movements involve large numbers of individuals. In some cases the individuals that migrate in one direction may not return and the next generation may instead migrate in the opposite direction. This is a significant difference from bird migration.

Monarch butterflies are especially noted for their lengthy annual migration. In North America they make massive southward migrations starting in August until the first frost. A northward migration takes place in the spring. The monarch is the only butterfly that migrates both north and south as the birds do on a regular basis. But no single individual makes the entire round trip. Female monarchs deposit eggs for the next generation during these migrations.[76] The length of these journeys exceeds the normal lifespan of most monarchs, which is less than two months for butterflies born in early summer. The last generation of the summer enters into a non-reproductive phase known as diapause and may live seven months or more.[77] During diapause, butterflies fly to one of many overwintering sites. The generation that overwinters generally does not reproduce until it leaves the overwintering site sometime in February and March. It is the second, third and fourth generations that return to their northern locations in the United States and Canada in the spring. How the species manages to return to the same overwintering spots over a gap of several generations is still a subject of research; the flight patterns appear to be inherited, based on a combination of the position of the sun in the sky[78] and a time-compensated Sun compass that depends upon a circadian clock that is based in their antennae.[79][80]


Recent studies of starling flocks have shown that each bird modifies its position, relative to the six or seven animals directly surrounding it, no matter how close or how far away those animals are.[3]

Murmurations of starlings
  • Nagy M, Akos Zs, Biro D and Vicsek T (2010) "Hierarchical group dynamics in pigeon flocks" Nature, 464: 890-893. Download pdf Supplementary pdf

Bird migration

Large bird typically migrate in V echelon formations. There are significant aerodynamic gains. All birds can see ahead, and towards one side, making a good arrangement for protection.

Approximately 1800 of world's 10,000 bird species are long-distance migrants.[81] The primary motivation for migration appears to be food; for example, some hummingbirds choose not to migrate if fed through the winter. Also, the longer days of the northern summer provide extended time for breeding birds to feed their young. This helps diurnal birds to produce larger clutches than related non-migratory species that remain in the tropics. As the days shorten in autumn, the birds return to warmer regions where the available food supply varies little with the season. These advantages offset the high stress, physical exertion costs, and other risks of the migration such as predation.

Many, if not most, birds migrate in flocks. For larger birds, flying in flocks reduces energy costs. Flocks of birds save energy when flying together much in the way that bicyclists draft one another in a peloton. The V formation greatly boosts the efficiency and range of flying birds, particularly over long migratory routes. All the birds except the first fly in the upwash from the wingtip vortices of the bird ahead. The upwash assists each bird in supporting its own weight in flight, in the same way a glider can climb or maintain height indefinitely in rising air. Geese flying in a V formation save energy by flying in the updraft of the wingtip vortex generated by the previous animal in the formation.[82][83] Thus, the birds flying behind do not need to work as hard to achieve lift. Studies show that birds in a V formation place themselves roughly at the optimum distance predicted by simple aerodynamic theory.[84] Geese in a V-formation may conserve 12–20% of the energy they would need to fly alone.[85][86] A V formation of 25 bird has been shown to achieve a reduction of induced drag by up to 65% and as a result increase their range by 71%.[87] Red knots and dunlins were found in radar studies to fly 5 km per hour faster in flocks than when they were flying alone.[88] The birds flying at the tips and at the front are rotated in a timely cyclical fashion to spread flight fatigue equally among the flock members. The formation also makes communication easier and allows the birds to maintain visual contact with each other.

Common starlings
External video
Lobster Migration scene
– from The Trials of Life

Other animals may use similar drafting techniques when migrating. Lobsters, for example, migrate in close single-file formation "lobster trains", sometimes for hundreds of miles.

The Mediterranean and other seas present a major obstacle to soaring birds, which must cross at the narrowest points. Massive numbers of large raptors and storks pass through areas such as Gibraltar, Falsterbo, and the Bosphorus at migration times. More common species, such as the European honey buzzard, can be counted in hundreds of thousands in autumn. Other barriers, such as mountain ranges, can also cause funnelling, particularly of large diurnal migrants. This is a notable factor in the Central American migratory bottleneck. This concentration of birds during migration can put species at risk. Some spectacular migrants have already gone extinct, the most notable being the passenger pigeon. During migration the flocks were a mile (1.6 km) wide and 300 miles (500 km) long, taking several days to pass and containing up to a billion birds.

Marine life


Schooling predator fish size up schooling anchovies
External images
Foraging efficiency[89]

The term "shoal" can be used to describe any group of fish, including mixed-species groups, while "school" is used for more closely knit groups of the same species swimming in a highly synchronised and polarised manner.

Fish derive many benefits from shoaling behaviour including defence against predators (through better predator detection and by diluting the chance of capture), enhanced foraging success, and higher success in finding a mate.[90] It is also likely that fish benefit from shoal membership through increased hydrodynamic efficiency.[91]

Fish use many traits to choose shoalmates. Generally they prefer larger shoals, shoalmates of their own species, shoalmates similar in size and appearance to themselves, healthy fish, and kin (when recognised). The "oddity effect" posits that any shoal member that stands out in appearance will be preferentially targeted by predators. This may explain why fish prefer to shoal with individuals that resemble them. The oddity effect would thus tend to homogenise shoals.[92]

One puzzling aspect of shoal selection is how a fish can choose to join a shoal of animals similar to themselves, given that it cannot know its own appearance. Experiments with zebrafish have shown that shoal preference is a learned ability, not innate. A zebrafish tends to associate with shoals that resemble shoals in which it was reared, a form of imprinting.[93]

Other open questions of shoaling behaviour include identifying which individuals are responsible for the direction of shoal movement. In the case of migratory movement, most members of a shoal seem to know where they are going. In the case of foraging behaviour, captive shoals of golden shiner (a kind of minnow) are led by a small number of experienced individuals who knew when and where food was available.[94]

Radakov estimated herring schools in the North Atlantic can occupy up to 4.8 cubic kilometres with fish densities between 0.5 and 1.0 fish/cubic metre. That's several billion fish in one school.[95]

  • Partridge BL (1982) "The structure and function of fish schools" Scientific American, June:114–123.
  • Parrish JK, Viscido SV, Grunbaum D (2002). "Self-Organized Fish Schools: An Examination of Emergent Properties" (PDF). Biol. Bull. 202 (3): 296–305.  

Fish migration

External images
Video clip of the "Sardine run"[96]

Between May and July huge numbers of sardines spawn in the cool waters of the Agulhas Bank and then follow a current of cold water northward along the east coast of South Africa. This great migration, called the sardine run, creates spectacular feeding frenzies along the coastline as marine predators, such as dolphins, sharks and gannets attack the schools.


Swarming krill

Most krill, small shrimp-like crustaceans, form large swarms, sometimes reaching densities of 10,000–60,000 individual animals per cubic metre.[97][98][99] Swarming is a defensive mechanism, confusing smaller predators that would like to pick out single individuals. The largest swarms are visible from space and can be tracked by satellite.[100] One swarm was observed to cover an area of 450 square kilometers (175 square miles) of ocean, to a depth of 200 meters (650 feet) and was estimated to contain over 2 million tons of krill.[101] Recent research suggests that krill do not simply drift passively in these currents but actually modify them.[101] Krill typically follow a diurnal vertical migration. By moving vertically through the ocean on a 12-hour cycle, the swarms play a major part in mixing deeper, nutrient-rich water with nutrient-poor water at the surface.[101] Until recently it has been assumed that they spend the day at greater depths and rise during the night toward the surface. It has been found that the deeper they go, the more they reduce their activity,[102] apparently to reduce encounters with predators and to conserve energy. Later work suggested that swimming activity in krill varied with stomach fullness. Satiated animals that had been feeding at the surface swim less actively and therefor sink below the mixed layer.[103] As they sink they produce faeces which may mean that they have an important role to play in the Antarctic carbon cycle. Krill with empty stomachs were found to swim more actively and thus head towards the surface. This implies that vertical migration may be a bi- or tri-daily occurrence. Some species form surface swarms during the day for feeding and reproductive purposes even though such behaviour is dangerous because it makes them extremely vulnerable to predators.[104] Dense swarms may elicit a feeding frenzy among fish, birds and mammal predators, especially near the surface. When disturbed, a swarm scatters, and some individuals have even been observed to moult instantaneously, leaving the exuvia behind as a decoy.[105] In 2012, Gandomi and Alavi presented what appears to be a successful stochastic algorithm for modelling the behaviour of krill swarms. The algorithm is based on three main factors: " (i) movement induced by the presence of other individuals (ii) foraging activity, and (iii) random diffusion."[106]


This copepod has its antenna spread (click to enlarge). The antenna detects the pressure wave of an approaching fish.

Copepods are a group of tiny crustaceans found in the sea and lakes. Many species are planktonic (drifting in sea waters), and others are benthic (living on the ocean floor). Copepods are typically 1 to 2 millimetres (0.04 to 0.08 in) long, with a teardrop shaped body and large antennae. Although like other crustaceans they have an armoured exoskeleton, they are so small that in most species this thin armour, and the entire body, is almost totally transparent. Copepods have a compound, median single eye, usually bright red, in the centre of the transparent head.

Copepods also swarm. For example, monospecific swarms have been observed regularly around coral reefs and sea grass, and in lakes. Swarms densities were about one million copepods per cubic metre. Typical swarms were one or two metres in diameter, but some exceeded 30 cubic metres. Copepods need visual contact to keep together, and they disperse at night.[107]

Spring produces forage fish and jellyfish, both of which can assemble in vast, million-strong swarms. Some copepods have extremely fast escape responses when a predator is sensed and can jump with high speed over a few millimetres (see animated image below).

Planktonic copepods are important to the human carbon emissions, thus reducing their impact. Many planktonic copepods feed near the surface at night, then sink into deeper water during the day to avoid visual predators. Their moulted exoskeletons, faecal pellets and respiration at depth all bring carbon to the deep sea.

Algal blooms

Many single-celled organisms called algal bloom. Blooms can cover hundreds of square kilometres and are easily seen in satellite images. Individual phytoplankton rarely live more than a few days, but blooms can last weeks.[109][110]

Other organisms


Swarming is also used to describe groupings of some kinds of bacteria such as myxobacteria. Myxobacteria swarm together in "wolf packs", actively moving using a process known as bacterial gliding and keeping together with the help of intercellular molecular signals.[51][111]


Sheep dogs control the flocking behaviour of sheep
  • Parrish JK, Edelstein-Keshet L (1999). "Complexity, pattern and evolutionary trade-offs in animal aggregation" (PDF). Science 284 (5411): 99–101.  


Police protect Nick Altrock from an adoring crowd during the 1906 World Baseball Series
External images
Mexican wave simulation[112]
Rhythmic applause simulation[113]

A collection of people can also exhibit swarm behaviour, such as pedestrians[114] or soldiers swarming the parapets. In Cologne, Germany, two biologists from the University of Leeds demonstrated flock like behaviour in humans. The group of people exhibited similar behavioural pattern to a flock, where if five percent of the flock changed direction the others would follow. If one person was designated as a predator and everyone else was to avoid him, the flock behaved very much like a school of fish.[115][116] Understanding how humans interact in crowds is important if crowd management is to effectively avoid casualties at football grounds, music concerts and subway stations.[117]

The mathematical modelling of flocking behaviour is a common technology, and has found uses in animation. Flocking simulations have been used in many films[118] to generate crowds which move realistically. Tim Burton's Batman Returns was the first movie to make use of swarm technology for rendering, realistically depicting the movements of a group of bats using the boids system. The The Lord of the Rings film trilogy made use of similar technology, known as massive, during battle scenes. Swarm technology is particularly attractive because it is cheap, robust, and simple.

An ant-based computer simulation using only six interaction rules has also been used to evaluate aircraft boarding behaviour.[119] Airlines have also used ant-based routing in assigning aircraft arrivals to airport gates. An airline system developed by Douglas A. Lawson uses swarm theory, or swarm intelligence—the idea that a colony of ants works better than one alone. Each pilot acts like an ant searching for the best airport gate. "The pilot learns from his experience what's the best for him, and it turns out that that's the best solution for the airline," Lawson explains. As a result, the "colony" of pilots always go to gates they can arrive and depart quickly. The program can even alert a pilot of plane back-ups before they happen. "We can anticipate that it's going to happen, so we'll have a gate available," says Lawson.[120]

Swarm behaviour occurs also in traffic flow dynamics, such as the traffic wave. Bidirectional traffic can be observed in ant trails.[121][122] In recent years this behaviour has been researched for insight into pedestrian and traffic models.[123][124] Simulations based on pedestrian models have also been applied to crowds which stampede because of panic.[125]

Herd behaviour in marketing has been used to explain the dependencies of customers' mutual behaviour. The Economist reported a recent conference in Rome on the subject of the simulation of adaptive human behaviour.[126] It shared mechanisms to increase impulse buying and get people "to buy more by playing on the herd instinct." The basic idea is that people will buy more of products that are seen to be popular, and several feedback mechanisms to get product popularity information to consumers are mentioned, including smart card technology and the use of Radio Frequency Identification Tag technology. A "swarm-moves" model was introduced by a Florida Institute of Technology researcher, which is appealing to supermarkets because it can "increase sales without the need to give people discounts."

  • Helbing D, Keltsch J, Molnar P (1997). "Modelling the evolution of human trail systems". Nature 388 (6637): 47–50.  
  • Helbing D, Farkas I, Vicsek T (2000). "Simulating dynamical features of escape panic". Nature 407 (6803): 487–490.  
  • Helbing D, Farkas IJ, Vicsek T (2000). "Freezing by heating in a driven mesoscopic system". Physical review letters 84 (6): 1240–1243.  


Kilobot is a thousand robot swarm developed at Harvard University.

The application of swarm principles to robots is called swarm robotics, while swarm intelligence refers to the more general set of algorithms.

External video
A Swarm of Nano Quadrotors – YouTube[127]

Partially inspired by swarm intelligence. The largest swarms so far created is the 1024 robot Kilobot swarm.[128] Other large swarms include the iRobot swarm, the SRI International/ActivMedia Robotics Centibots project,[129] and the Open-source Micro-robotic Project swarm, which are being used to research collective behaviours.[130][131] Swarms are also more resistant to failure. Whereas one large robot may fail and ruin a mission, a swarm can continue even if several robots fail. This could make them attractive for space exploration missions, where failure is normally extremely costly.[132] In addition to ground vehicles, swarm robotics includes also research of swarms of aerial robots[127][133] and heterogeneous teams of ground and aerial vehicles.[134][135]


Contrast between guerrilla ambush and true swarming (Edwards-2003)

Military swarming is a behaviour where autonomous or partially autonomous units of action attack an enemy from several different directions and then regroup. Pulsing, where the units shift the point of attack, is also a part of military swarming. Military swarming involves the use of a decentralized force against an opponent, in a manner that emphasizes mobility, communication, unit autonomy and coordination or synchronization.[136] Historically military forces used principles of swarming without really examining them explicitly, but now active research consciously examines military doctrines that draw ideas from swarming.

Merely because multiple units converge on a target, they are not necessarily swarming. Siege operations do not involve swarming, because there is no manoeuvre; there is convergence but on the besieged fortification. Nor do guerrilla ambushes constitute swarms, because they are "hit-and-run". Even though the ambush may have several points of attack on the enemy, the guerillas withdraw when they either have inflicted adequate damage, or when they are endangered.

In 2014 the U. S. Office of Naval Research released a video showing tests of a swarm of small autonomous drone attack boats that can steer and take coordinated offensive action as a group.[137]



  • There is a popular myth that lemmings commit mass suicide by swarming off cliffs when they migrate. Driven by strong biological urges, some species of lemmings may migrate in large groups when population density becomes too great. Lemmings can swim and may choose to cross a body of water in search of a new habitat. In such cases, many may drown if the body of water is so wide as to stretch their physical capability to the limit. This fact combined with some unexplained fluctuations in the population of Norwegian lemmings gave rise to the myth.[141]
  • Piranha have a reputation as fearless fish that swarm in ferocious and predatory packs. However, recent research, which started "with the premise that they school as a means of cooperative hunting", discovered that they were in fact rather fearful fish, like other fish, who schooled for protection from their predators, such as cormorants, caimans and dolphins. A researcher described them as "basically like regular fish with large teeth".[142]

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Other references

  • Blum C and Merkle D (2008) Swarm intelligence: introduction and applications Springer. ISBN 978-3-540-74088-9.
  • Camazine S, Deneubourg JL, Franks NR, Sneyd J, Theraulaz G and Bonabeau E (2003) Self-Organization in Biological Systems Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-11624-2.
  • Fisher L (2009) The perfect swarm: the science of complexity in everyday life Basic Books. ISBN 978-0-465-01884-0.
  • Kennedy JF, Kennedy J, Eberhart RC and Shi Y (2001) Swarm intelligence Morgan Kaufmann. ISBN 978-1-55860-595-4.
  • Krause, J (2005) Living in Groups Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-850818-2
  • Lim CP, Jain LC and Dehuri S (2009) Innovations in Swarm Intelligence Springer. ISBN 978-3-642-04224-9.
  • Miller, Peter (2010) The Smart Swarm: How understanding flocks, schools, and colonies can make us better at communicating, decision making, and getting things done Penguin, ISBN 978-1-58333-390-7
  • Nedjah N and Mourelle LdM (2006) Swarm intelligent systems Springer. ISBN 978-3-540-33868-0.
  • Sumpter, David JT (2010) Collective Animal Behavior Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-14843-4.
  • Vicsek A, Zafeiris A (2012). "Collective motion". Physics Reports 517 (3–4): 71–140.  

External links

  • New York times article on investigations into swarming
  • From the Wolfram Demonstrations Project — requires CDF player (free):
    • Model of a Firefly Swarm.
    • Garbage Collection by Ants
    • Beverton and Merging Schools of Fish
    • Propp Circles

A 19th century depiction of a swarm of desert locusts


Cockroaches are mainly nocturnal and will run away when exposed to light. A study tested the hypothesis that cockroaches use just two pieces of information to decide where to go under those conditions: how dark it is and how many other cockroaches there are. The study conducted by José Halloy and colleagues at the Free University of Brussels and other European institutions created a set of tiny robots that appear to the roaches as other roaches and can thus alter the roaches' perception of critical mass. The robots were also specially scented so that they would be accepted by the real roaches.[68]

Similar to ants, cockroaches leave chemical trails in their faeces as well as emitting airborne pheromones for swarming and mating. Other cockroaches will follow these trails to discover sources of food and water, and also discover where other cockroaches are hiding. Thus, cockroaches can exhibit emergent behaviour,[67] in which group or swarm behaviour emerges from a simple set of individual interactions.


When a honey bee swarm emerges from a hive they do not fly far at first. They may gather in a tree or on a branch only a few meters from the hive. There, they cluster about the queen and send 20 -50 scout bees out to find a suitable new nest locations. The scout bees are the most experienced foragers in the cluster. An individual scout returning to the cluster promotes a location she has found. She uses a dance similar to the waggle dance to indicate direction and distance to others in the cluster. The more excited she is about her findings the more excitedly she dances. If she can convince other scouts to check out the location she found, they may take off, check out the proposed site and promote the site further upon their return. Several different sites may be promoted by different scouts at first. After several hours and sometimes days, slowly a favourite location emerges from this decision making process. When all scouts agree on a final location the whole cluster takes off and flies to it. A swarm may fly for a kilometre or more to the scouted out location. This collective decision making process is remarkably successful in identifying the most suitable new nest site and keeping the swarm intact. A good nest site has to be large enough to accommodate the swarm (about 15 litres in volume), has to be well protected from the elements, receive a certain amount of warmth from the sun, and resist the infestation of ants.[62][63][64][65][66]

Bees swarming on a shrub


The successful techniques used by ant colonies have been studied in computer science and robotics to produce distributed and fault-tolerant systems for solving problems. This area of biomimetics has led to studies of ant locomotion, search engines that make use of "foraging trails", fault-tolerant storage and networking algorithms.[61]

Individual ants do not exhibit complex behaviours, yet a colony of ants collectively achieves complex tasks such as constructing nests, taking care of their young, building bridges and foraging for food. A colony of ants can locate the food source nearest their nest without any individual ant possessing any knowledge about that. If there are two paths from the ant nest to a food source, then the colony usually selects the shorter path. This is because individual ants lay down chemical trails as they move, a pheromone which is then followed by other ants. The ants that first return to the nest from the food source are more likely to be those that took the shorter path. More ants then retrace the shorter path, reinforcing the pheromone trail.[60] In this way, "the ants collectively solve an optimization problem using emergent computation."[60] Swarm behavior used for foraging is utilized by the Eciton burchellii species.

A swarm of ants which have discovered a food source


The behaviour of insects that live in swarm intelligence.[59]


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  • Beekman M, Sword GA and Simpson SK (2008) Biological Foundations of Swarm Intelligence. In Swarm intelligence: introduction and applications, Eds Blum C and Merkle D. シュプリンガー・ジャパン株式会社, Page 3–43. ISBN 978-3-540-74088-9
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  • Spawning
  • Synchronous spawning
  • External fertilization

Examples of biological swarming are found in bird flocks,[47] fish schools,[48][49] insect swarms,[50] bacteria swarms,[51][52] molds,[53] molecular motors,[54] quadruped herds[55] and people.[56][57][58]

Bats swarming out of a cave in Thailand

Biological swarming

Researchers in Switzerland have developed an algorithm based on Hamilton's rule of kin selection. The algorithm shows how altruism in a swarm of entities can, over time, evolve and result in more effective swarm behaviour.[45][46]


Particle swarm optimization is another algorithm widely used to solve problems related to swarms. It was developed in 1995 by Kennedy and Eberhart and was first aimed at simulating the social behaviour and choreography of bird flocks and fish schools.[39][40] The algorithm was simplified and it was observed to be performing optimization. The system initially seeds a population with random solutions. It then searches in the problem space through successive generations using stochastic optimization to find the best solutions. The solutions it finds are called particles. Each particle stores its position as well as the best solution it has achieved so far. The particle swarm optimizer tracks the best local value obtained so far by any particle in the local neighbourhood. The remaining particles then move through the problem space following the lead of the optimum particles. At each time iteration, the particle swarm optimiser accelerates each particle toward its optimum locations according to simple mathematical rules. Particle swarm optimization has been applied in many areas. It has few parameters to adjust, and a version that works well for a specific applications can also work well with minor modifications across a range of related applications.[41] A book by Kennedy and Eberhart describes some philosophical aspects of particle swarm optimization applications and swarm intelligence.[42] An extensive survey of applications is made by Poli.[43][44]

Particle swarm optimization

Simulations demonstrate that a suitable "nearest neighbour rule" eventually results in all the particles swarming together, or moving in the same direction. This emerges, even though there is no centralized coordination, and even though the neighbours for each particle constantly change over time (see the interactive simulation in the box on the right).[34] SPP models predict that swarming animals share certain properties at the group level, regardless of the type of animals in the swarm.[36] Swarming systems give rise to emergent behaviours which occur at many different scales, some of which are turning out to be both universal and robust. It has become a challenge in theoretical physics to find minimal statistical models that capture these behaviours.[37][38]

Self-propelled particles (SPP) is a concept introduced in 1995 by Vicsek et al.[34] as a special case of the boids model introduced in 1986 by Reynolds.[2] A swarm is modelled in SPP by a collection of particles that move with a constant speed but respond to a random perturbation by adopting at each time increment the average direction of motion of the other particles in their local neighbourhood.[35]

External video
SPP model interactive simulation[33]
– needs Java

Self-propelled particles

  • Ants are behaviourally unsophisticated; collectively they perform complex tasks. Ants have highly developed sophisticated sign-based communication.
  • Ants communicate using pheromones; trails are laid that can be followed by other ants.
  • Routing problem ants drop different pheromones used to compute the "shortest" path from source to destination(s).
  • Rauch EM, Millonas MM and Chialvo DR (1995) "Pattern formation and functionality in swarm models" Physics Letters A, 207: 185. arXiv:adap-org/9507003

Ant colony optimization is a widely used algorithm which was inspired by the behaviours of ants, and has been effective solving discrete optimization problems related to swarming.[28] The algorithm was initially proposed by Marco Dorigo in 1992,[29][30] and has since been diversified to solve a wider class of numerical problems. Species that have multiple queens may have a queen leaving the nest along with some workers to found a colony at a new site, a process akin to swarming in honeybees.[31][32]

External images
Swarmanoid robots find shortest path over double bridge[27]

Ant colony optimization

Swarm algorithms follow a Lagrangian approach or an Eulerian approach.[22] The Eulerian approach views the swarm as a field, working with the density of the swarm and deriving mean field properties. It is a hydrodynamic approach, and can be useful for modelling the overall dynamics of large swarms.[23][24][25] However, most models work with the Lagrangian approach, which is an agent-based model following the individual agents (points or particles) that make up the swarm. Individual particle models can follow information on heading and spacing that is lost in the Eulerian approach.[22][26]


Swarm intelligence research is multidisciplinary. It can be divided into natural swarm research studying biological systems and artificial swarm research studying human artefacts. There is also a scientific stream attempting to model the swarm systems themselves and understand their underlying mechanisms, and an engineering stream focused on applying the insights developed by the scientific stream to solve practical problems in other areas.[21]

Swarm intelligence systems are typically made up of a population of simple agents such as boids interacting locally with one another and with their environment. The agents follow very simple rules, and although there is no centralized control structure dictating how individual agents should behave, local, and to a certain degree random, interactions between such agents lead to the emergence of intelligent global behaviour, unknown to the individual agents.

artificial intelligence. The expression was introduced by Gerardo Beni and Jing Wang in 1989, in the context of cellular robotic systems.[20]

Swarm intelligence


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