On March 9th, Ana Filipa Scarpa was photographing the beautiful yet overcast landscape of Vila Franca de Xira in Portugal. It was towards the end of that grey day that something amazing happened. Scarpa saw what she assumed was a tornado, but looking closer she realized it was a massive swarm of mosquitos.
“It was a very high funnel swinging to the left and to the right. I pointed my camera and began shooting,” Scarpa said in an email. After getting within 300 meters of the swarm, Scarpa started snapping photos. Situated on the West bank of the Tagus River, Vila Franca de Xira is apparently prime real estate for mosquito breeding this time of year.
Swarms aren’t just bunches of bugs either–they are manifestations of group intelligence. Last year, Ed Yong, writer of National Geographic’s Not Exactly Rocket Science, wrote a fantastic feature for Wired on the efforts to decode the magic of swarms. In the feature, Yong discusses studies done on locusts, fish, honey bees, and starlings, all of which make similar swarms by following the nearby behavior of neighbors. Not content to write the similarities off as simply convergent evolution, some scientists wonder if all of these species are tapping into a sort of basic physical principal that we could one day mathematically map. “Either all these collectives came up with different behaviors that produce the same outcomes,” says Yong, “or some basic rules underlie everything and the behaviors are the bridge from the rules to the collective.” Could a mosquito tornado be operating according to this principal?
Yong also points out that it’s not just groups of animals that swarm, but that the mechanics of our brain may exhibit a kind of swarming too.
Every spring, individual honey bees will leave the hive to scout out locations for a new colony. When they return to the group, the bees dance and wiggle their bodies to campaign for their spot. To study this, Thomas Seeley of Cornell University marked bees that had visited and then campaigned for different locations. What he observed was that bees campaigning for one location would head-butt those campaigning for another, sometimes managing to downvote opposing ideas into insignificance and getting the group to follow them. Decision making in the brain might operate in much the same way.
“In the 1980s cognitive scientists began to posit that human cognition itself is an emergent process. In your brain, this thinking goes, different sets of neurons fire in favor of different options, exciting some neighbors into firing like the waggling bees, and inhibiting others into silence, like the head-butting ones. The competition builds until a decision emerges,” says Yong. The conclusion is that the brain, like a swarm of neurons, works as a unit to decide to run away from the terrifying mosquito tornado, for example, or get closer for a good picture, as Scarpa did. Could it be that our brains are operating on the same universal principal as a swarm of honey bees?
Give Yong’s article a read. And to all you Portuguese Nerdist readers out there, watch out for mosquito tornadoes.
Mosquito Photos Credit: Ana Filipa Scarpa, republished here with permission