We often imagine that collective motion creates an advantage – that the schooling fish and flocks of birds gain something from this behavior – but that’s not always the case. Above, you see nematodes moving through a thin liquid layer. Random collisions occasionally bring the nematodes into contact, and once that happens, surface tension holds them together with a force that exceeds what their muscles can supply. Essentially, they move together for the same reason that Cheerios clump together in your cereal bowl. But despite being stuck alongside one another, there’s no change in how the nematode moves. It sees neither an advantage nor a disadvantage from being attached to its neighbor. (Image and research credit: S. Gart et al., source)
This post completes our series on collective motion. Check out the previous posts about honeybee waves, how crowds are like sand, the fluid properties of worms, and why a lack of randomness makes predicting group behaviors hard.