January 26, 2023

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Jest coś fascynującego w ruchu zwierząt w grupie (fot. Shutterstock/tomocam)

Magdalena Kawalek Segond: “The most terrifying creature – a clever sheep”

flock. What does this word mean to us? What is herding behaviour? Is it a stupid mechanism or collective wisdom? Both amusements and physicists focus on the problem. Let’s take a look at the sheep.

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When I heard about the results of research carried out by associated “modellers”, among others, at the French Academy of Sciences (CNRS) and the University of the Côte d’Azur in Nice, I was reminded of an old but lifelike sketch of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The peasant tells the townsman in a bowler hat that his sheep have begun to consider themselves birds, so they try, in vain, to sit on the branches or even fly. When asked where they got it from, he replied: “It’s all because of Harald. It’s the most terrifying of all creatures – the clever sheep. The spectators laugh their heads because the absurd is amusing, and the pyramidal one, like a flock of flying sheep, is even more amusing.

However, there is something fascinating about the movement of animals in a group. Partly because we humans, as social creatures, have herd behaviour. Mass panic, collective courage, even the most bizarre fashions, ideologies that have driven entire nations into mass insanity – this is nothing new in social research. Of course, observations of animal herd behavior can inspire the development of strategies to promote social change, as well as technologies that mimic nature. Well, social engineering can start with a reed note.

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Before Luis Gomez-Nava, Richard Boone, and Fernando Peruani began modeling the movement of a flock of sheep based on real-world observation and experimentation, this behavior was seen as a self-regulating process in which individuals constantly adjust their direction and speed eventually achieving “collective” movement. However, “Harald – the clever sheep” is forgotten, and without metaphors – the hierarchical structure displayed by numerous groups of animals. Maternal evolution has been honed in many groups of animals so far apart on the tree of life because of the benefits of having a “leader” showing the way. As for the sheep, it became even more interesting. By constantly exchanging the roles of leader and follower, group members eventually achieve a form of “collective intelligence”.



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Thus, it is not taken into account that the movement of herd systems, like animals, is not a continuous process, but is intermittent, only to rest or to assault.. So it’s time to sum up and change. You don’t have to constantly agree with each other where to go when you’re walking, when you can do it at a watering hole or resting place. Therefore, the movement of society has phases, and these have a marked beginning and end. It takes time, and this stage is longer than one. Even if the herd organizes itself in the movement phase, this does not mean that there are no fundamental changes between them, such as a change in leadership. Sounds familiar, right?

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Now the real learning begins. Experimentally, the spontaneous behavior of small groups of sheep over different time intervals has been thoroughly investigated. The tracks of individual herd members were analyzed and the general spatial arrangement and orientation of the animals were calculated, while correlations between the speed at which individual animals moved were evaluated.. Thus, it turned out that the interaction network that represented the behavior of the observed flocks was highly hierarchical, and the only information this network published concerned the location of a particular sheep in the group at a given moment. These observations allowed the construction of a model of collective animal locomotion that focused on two major cognitive processes. These processes are the selection of the leader who will lead the herd for a certain period of time and the mechanism behind herd mobility. As we read on the pages of the phys.org portal that held conversations with French researchers, “from this perspective, questions about the mechanisms of information exchange and consensus decision-making take on a new dimension”.



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The temporary leader has complete control over the group, but a quick and inevitable rotation of leaders so that everyone essentially alternates between leading and following – that’s the key.. It should be noted that this only works when all subjects follow the time leader without questioning. Of course, it is temporarily better for our friend Harald from the Monty Python drawing to play the role of leader – as long as he knows how to get out of the maze or find food, effectively lead the group, discourage climbing trees and flying. However, the flock will take full advantage of the wisdom gained, and you are only a temporary leader.

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This is how it works when it comes to the collective movement of flocks of young sheep. To generalize this knowledge, it is necessary to make at least careful observations of larger groups of sheep and other species moving in the herd. Meanwhile, as the authors of the work say: “We have demonstrated that by regularly changing the interim leader, the group is able to demonstrate collective information gathering and intelligence.”.

Organizational schemes for collective animal behavior can be hierarchical or isometric. How sheep learn to work in this system remains a very important issue, so it is necessary to compare the spontaneous behavior of groups of young and old lambs and sheep. What happens in the event of a conflict of interest? How is information processed by the group and disseminated within it? This is where statistical mechanics and systems analysis can help. Of course, it also remains to be finally examined whether observations obtained on animals allow us to model collective human intelligence. But why not?




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