Social animals commonly form aggregates that exhibit emergent collective behaviour, with group dynamics that are distinct from the behaviour of individuals. Simple models can qualitatively reproduce such behaviour, but only with large numbers of individuals. But how rapidly do the collective properties of animal aggregations in nature emerge with group size? Here, we study swarms of Chironomus riparius midges and measure how their statistical properties change as a function of the number of participating individuals. Once the swarms contain order 10 individuals, we find that all statistics saturate and the swarms enter an asymptotic regime. The influence of environmental cues on the swarm morphology decays on a similar scale. Our results provide a strong constraint on how rapidly swarm models must produce collective states. But our findings support the feasibility of using swarms as a design template for multi-agent systems, because self-organized states are possible even with few agents.
Keywords: collective animal behaviour; self-organization; statistical mechanics.
© 2014 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.