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ScienceShot: How Locusts Are Like Magnets

A flock of pigeons swooping through a city and a swarm of hungry locusts descending on a field may have more in common than you think. According to soon-to-be-published research in Physical Review E, the same math may describe the way both types of critters switch directions in a group. Locusts sometimes travel in swarms that can be extremely destructive to crops. Individual bugs in the swarm might meander, but the direction of the group as a whole generally remains the same. Occasionally, however, enough locusts move in a different direction that the group suddenly switches direction as a whole. A team of mathematicians and biologists studying locusts described the shift mathematically and found that it looked a lot like the way magnetic charges tend to move. Freely-moving magnetic charges tend to line up in the same direction. But every so often, enough charges will randomly flip around and push the whole bunch to make the switch. The same thing appears to happen with locusts, and it may even hold true for large groups of birds and fish.

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