There are a few things that people can watch forever—fire, water and herds of animals on the move. Flocks of birds are mesmerizing. Just watch:
This is a computer simulation of the way fish school:
And here’s one more, just for good measure:
The way the flock moves and ungulates around itself isn’t just beautiful, it’s fascinating to scientists, too. Researchers in Hungary recently tackled this problem using tiny “light sailboats”—little wedges of plastic coated with gold to make them reflective. When these little sailboats are placed in water, and you shine a light on them from above, they begin to move around on the surface. Technology Review explains:
They say the sailboats move steadily in a single direction determined by their orientation. However, they also tend to change direction due to imperfections in the medium and in the structures themselves. On average they travel up to about 1500 micrometres before veering off course.
The plan is to use the sailboats to tease apart the fundamental properties of flocking. For that, Búzás and co will need to increase the density of sailboats to see how their mutual interactions influence flocking.
Eventually perhaps they’ll understand how the birds move as a unit.
More from Smithsonian.com: