In Animal Groups, Scientists See Patterns That Could Predict The Future

cooperation and conflict eventually could provide scientists with the proverbial "canary in the coal mine" that allows humans to grasp the effects that their actions today will have on the world a century from now.

For example, a slight increase in water temperature because of global warming or a change in the ocean's chemical balance because of coastal pollution could alter the point at which schooling breaks down. Given the added stress of overfishing - humans consume 40 million to 50 million metric tons of schooling organisms each year - fish might end up in groups too small or too unfamiliar to survive. People wonder how massive flocks of passenger pigeons could ever have become extinct, Parrish says. As flocks got smaller, social interactions between the birds broke down. Hundreds or even thousands of birds were simply too few to form the flock sizes needed for the species to survive, she says.

Documenting how animal groups behave allows computer models to predict what will happen under various conditions in the future. A school of fish, for instance, can sense the approach of a predator and take evasive action. The group might scatter to avoid being consumed, though stragglers or individuals at the outer edges of the group might be devoured. But once the danger has passed, the group reforms. With a computer model, scientists can change the intensity of predation to see at what level the school is slow to reform or doesn't get back together at all.

Likewise, the models can assume conditions that don't yet exist - higher water temperature, for instance, or lower fish populations, possibly because of overfishing. The scientists study the models to see how fish react to those conditions.

"As resources are strained, it creates greater competition within the group. That has implications for all things human," Parrish says.

Humans are among the most social species and display all sorts of crowd behavior, no matter whether the individual knows the

Contact: Vince Stricherz
University of Washington

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