Collective gradient sensing

Throughout the animal kingdom, animals frequently benefit from living in groups. Models of collective behaviour show that simple local interactions are sufficient to generate group morphologies found in nature (swarms, flocks and mills). However, individuals also interact with the complex noisy environment in which they live. In this work, we experimentally investigate the group performance in navigating a noisy light gradient of two unrelated freshwater species: golden shiners (Notemigonus crysoleucas) and rummy nose tetra (Hemigrammus bleheri). We find that tetras outperform shiners due to their innate individual ability to sense the environmental gradient. Using numerical simulations, we examine how group performance depends on the relative weight of social and environmental information. Our results highlight the importance of balancing of social and environmental information to promote optimal group morphologies and performance.

Symmetry breaking in collective animal behavior

What determines the direction a school of fish will mill? When does it switch? Are there leaders? Or are some positions in the school more influential? An attractive model for collective motion involves strong interactions between the heading of the each fish and its neighbors, which is analogous to the electron spins in a ferromagnet. By using a projected light gradient as an external field, we probe the relative strengths of fish-fish alignment and fish-field interactions.

Intrinsic fluctuations

Animals of all sizes form groups, as acting together can convey advantages over acting alone; thus, collective animal behavior has been identified as a promising template for designing engineered systems. However, models and observations have focused predominantly on characterizing the overall group morphology, and often focus on highly ordered groups such as bird flocks. We instead study a disorganized aggregation (an insect mating swarm), and compare its natural fluctuations with the group-level response to an external stimulus. We quantify the swarm’s frequency-dependent linear response and its spectrum of intrinsic fluctuations, and show that the ratio of these two quantities has a simple scaling with frequency. Our results provide a new way of comparing models of collective behavior with experimental data.


Collective animal behaviour is often modeled by systems of agents that interact via effective social forces, including short-range repulsion and long-range attraction. We search for evidence of such effective forces by studying laboratory swarms of the flying midge Chironomus riparius. Using multi-camera stereoimaging and particle-tracking techniques, we record three-dimensional trajectories for all the individuals in the swarm.

Photoelastcic force measurements in granular materials

How can we measure the stress between particles in a granular material? Photoelastic techniques are used to make both qualitative and quantitative measurements of the forces within idealized granular materials. The method is based on placing a birefringent granular material between a pair of polarizing filters, so that each region of the material rotates the polarization of light according to the amount of local stress. Using photoelastic analysis, we can quantitatively determine the vector contact forces between particles in a 2D granular system.

Multi-layer networks in granular materials

As a granular material is compressed, the particles and forces within the system arrange to form complex and heterogeneous collective structures. Force chains are a prime example of such structures, and are thought to constrain bulk properties such as mechanical stability and acoustic transmission. However, capturing and characterizing the evolving nature of the intrinsic inhomogeneity and mesoscale architecture of granular systems can be challenging. We use multilayer networks as a framework for directly quantifying the progression of mesoscale architecture in a compressed granular system.

Granular materials

Although jammed granular systems are athermal, several thermodynamic-like descriptions have been proposed which make quantitative predictions about the distribution of volume and stress within a system and provide a corresponding temperaturelike variable. We perform experiments with an apparatus designed to generate a large number of independent, jammed, two-dimensional configurations. Within each configuration, a bath of particles surrounds a smaller subsystem of particles with a different interparticle friction coefficient than the bath. By comparing the temperaturelike quantities in both systems, we find compactivity (conjugate to the volume) does not equilibrate between the systems, while the angoricity (conjugate to the stress) does.