Information transfer and behavioural inertia in starling flocks

Nat Phys. 2014 Sep 1;10(9):615-698. doi: 10.1038/nphys3035.


Collective decision-making in biological systems requires all individuals in the group to go through a behavioural change of state. During this transition fast and robust transfer of information is essential to prevent cohesion loss. The mechanism by which natural groups achieve such robustness, though, is not clear. Here we present an experimental study of starling flocks performing collective turns. We find that information about direction changes propagates across the flock with a linear dispersion law and negligible attenuation, hence minimizing group decoherence. These results contrast starkly with current models of collective motion, which predict diffusive transport of information. Building on spontaneous symmetry breaking and conservation laws arguments, we formulate a new theory that correctly reproduces linear and undamped propagation. Essential to the new framework is the inclusion of the birds' behavioural inertia. The new theory not only explains the data, but also predicts that information transfer must be faster the stronger the group's orientational order, a prediction accurately verified by the data. Our results suggest that swift decision-making may be the adaptive drive for the strong behavioural polarization observed in many living groups.