Amazing Facts About Wildlife

Staying together without a leader

Staying together without a leader

Independent individuals sometimes move in concert without being conducted, says S.Ananthanarayanan.


A well-known instance is the collective behaviour which is seen in groups of insects, birds, fish, even bacteria. While there are no indicators that individual members of the groups are aware or conscious of more than a few neighbours, the whole group self-organises with coordination and cohesiveness, as if enclosed in an envelope, or a containing surface, and the group moves like a single, sentient being.

The phenomenon is of interest both in the study of the animal kingdom as well as one to mimic while managing groups of machines, or in robotics. A step to help understand the mechanism that translates the relationship among a handful of individuals into orchestration of the whole assembly may be finding the smallest size of the group that shows such behaviour. James G. Puckett and Nicholas T. Ouellette from Yale University, Connecticut, have examined this question and they report in Interface, the journal of the Royal Society, that it takes just ten individuals of one species of insect to act essentially in the same way as a swarm of many more.
Swarming behaviour is seen most markedly in the movement of hordes of locusts, in the coordinated, short flight of thousands of birds, usually from one large perching area, like a set of trees, to another, and in shoals of fish. Bacteria are found, when present in sufficient numbers, to slide en-masse across surfaces and even microscopic plants, like phytoplankton, form themselves into vast rafts called ‘blooms’. The characteristic is that the individuals in the groups are self-propelled and are not subject to any centralised control. “The group-level dynamics emerge spontaneously as a consequence of the low-level interactions between individuals,” Puckett and Oullette say in the paper.

A mathematical model of a swarm could consist of several basic units, capable of motion, placed together and subject to simple rules. The rules, for instance, could be that a unit should move the same way as its neighbour and stay close to neighbours, and yet a little away, so that it does not touch a neighbour. It is easy to imagine that if the members of a large group all follow these rules, there will be random shuffling and lead to general movement of the group in some direction, which may veer and swerve as individuals make their decisions to keep following the rules.

Another example of large numbers of individual particles following specific rules in bulk is that of the molecules of a gas. Here, the thermodynamic equilibrium, which is the pressure and volume, given the temperature, is decided by the rules of statistics, of the number of different, equivalent combinations there can be of the molecules of the gas distributing themselves in, for a given total energy. It works out that the distribution where the gas has the same pressure and temperature at all parts of the container is the distribution that can be arrived at in the most number of ways, and this distribution becomes more likely when the number of molecules increases. This is then the actual distribution, as different ways, like with the molecules on one side of the container moving faster than on the other side, in even a small volume of gas, are vanishingly unlikely.

This kind of statistical thinking helps explain certain other natural phenomena of distribution of independent units along patterns, like the spots on some lizard species. The spots are found to change colour, over time, in a way that depends on the colour of neighbouring spots. Now, if the spots are viewed to be distributed in hexagons, it can be shown that the most likely neighbourhood is one with three neighbours of a different colour. This then becomes the rule for each spot and each of the neighbours to follow, and the result is a ‘labyrinthine’ pattern whose origin it is difficult to explain in any other way. 

The units in swarms of animals, however, are capable of self-propulsion, unlike molecules whose speed and direction depends on collisions with other molecules. Collective movements of animals hence cannot be treated in a straightforward statistical way like with a gas, but can still be viewed as the ‘large number’ tendency as more and more self-propelled and mutually interacting units come together. When the group is very large, the paper says, it is reasonable to suppose that one part of the swarm is not different from another and that the group behaviour represents a state that is shared by all units. This assumption, however, is not valid when the group is small and small groups would not have the cohesion and resilience of large groups. Discovering how large a group needs to be before it reaches the stage when adding numbers does not bring about appreciable change would help understand the ‘low number’ behaviour of groups, Puckett and Oullette say in the paper. This would impact bio-inspired engineering applications by setting the smallest number that must be there for group behaviour to emerge, they say.

Another way of looking at swarm behaviour is that the disorganised movement of smaller groups of individuals appears to become ordered and follow a pattern when the group reaches a threshold number. The transition is then seen as a kind of ‘phase change’, like we see when water vapour condenses to liquid or when liquid water freezes to ice. Finding the threshold numbers for swarming would show the stage at which uniting effects of the rules of interaction overcome the fissiparous nature of groups of individuals, and hence keep the group together.

Puckett and Oullette considered the movements of swarms of midges, the annoying collection of flying insects that form a cloud around people’s heads when they are out in the open. These swarms do not move over distances, like swarms of fish or birds, but the midges, in rapid motion themselves, stay together over a limited defined area, as a group.

“As collisions are disadvantageous and the sharp manoeuvres required to avoid a collision when two individuals come close together are energetically costly….. the midges tend to arrange themselves to maintain some empty space in their local neighbourhood,” the researchers say. The researchers then used rapid, high speed photographs of 344 swarms of midges in motion, to analyse the changes in statistical features of the midges’ local surroundings as the groups changed in size. With groups ranging from a single midge to groups of sixty midges, a main feature of analysis was of the average volume, as a fraction of the volume of the swarm, that each midge occupied in its flight, on the average, over a period.

The study has shown that while the statistics change as the number of participants increases, they settle down to a steady figure at the level of just ten individuals. Thus, while on midge may roam freely around a central average position, two midges are somewhat more united and three midges even more so. But when we reach ten midges, they form a swarm that stays basically unchanged as the numbers increase, even to thousands.

The study may the first time that individuals flying in a three-dimensional swarm have been tracked, to reveal how collective behaviour emerges as the swarm size is increased.

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Bird Watching




An old Snoopy man with hawk eyes behind black-framed spectacles and without wings learned how to fly with birds and discovered the maximum number of species during his journey.  Salim Ali had flown in all directions for his love towards birds. He spent half of his life in bird watching. Ali’s vision towards the field of ornithology is unmatched in India.  His contribution and discovery have transformed the field of ornithology in India.  His great vision and love for birds gave him the title of “BIRDMAN OF INDIA”.

Born as Salim Moizuddin Abdul Ali in Bombay on 12 November 1896, he was the youngest of nine children.  The ten year old boy had developed an immense love for birds  after he had shot the yellow throat sparrow.  His uncle Abbas Tyabji introduced him to W.S Millard, The Secretary of Bombay Natural History Society.  Mr. Millard was amazed by the curiosity of young Ali and gave him  a round to show the collection of stuffed birds.  This single incident changed  Dr. Salim Ali’s life and made him world’s best bird watcher and legendary ornithologist.
Dr. Salim Ali left Bombay in 1919,  due to no jobs available in natural history.  He went to Burma where he managed his family business.  After seven years, he returned to complete his studies and he applied for the post of ornithologist at the zoological survey of India but was rejected on the criteria of eligibility as he didn't have an MSc or Ph.D.  He was sure about making his career in ornithology.  He went to Berlin to study where he trained under Professor Stresemann, renounced ornithologist, whom Sálim Ali considered his guru.

Despite having a high qualification from a foreign University,  Dr. Salim failed to find a job.  He never let down his dreams.   Dr. Salim Ali offered his services at Bombay natural history society which was conducting a regional ornithological survey. Working in tough conditions, he made his way.   After  independence from the British, he took over  charge of Bombay natural history society and successfully managed to save the society which was under financial crunches.  The government of India helped the Dr. Salim Ali to save the hundred year old prestigious institution the Bombay Natural History Society.

Ali’s contribution in the  field of ornithology is unmatched and his books on birds were the result of a marvelous amount of field work that has set new standards in ornithology.  He upgraded  bird watching as the science of systematic perservation. His interest mostly lay in the ecology of birds which is the study of habits, habitat, food, and breeding of the birds.  Dr. Salim Ali was the first person to introduce systematical ornithology survey at that time when nobody was aware of the distribution pattern of birds in India.  During his career in Bombay Natural History Society, he had worked on various important researches and studies on ecology. Bharatpur bird sanctuary was alive because of Dr. Salim Ali’s  continuous intervention.  He fought hard to save the wildlife and nature of Silent Valle, the Virgin Tropical Forest in Kerala where the Government planned to construct a hydroelectric Project.  Ali’s research on the habitat of weaver birds was appreciated by world ornithologists.

Dr. Salim Ali penned down many books which reflected his achievements  in the field of ornithology; The Books of Indian Birds, Birds of Kerala and his autobiography The Fall of the Sparrow.  Ali was honored with a doctorate from the Aligarh Muslim University, Delhi University, and Andhra University.  He was the first Indian and first non-British to receive the Gold Medal from the British Ornithology Union in 1967, the same year he received J.Paul Wildlife Conversation Prize.  In 1969, he was honored by the John Philips Memorial Award by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources and in 1973,  by the Golden Ark from the Netherlands Prince Bernhard for his an excellent contribution to nature conservation.  Dr. Salim Ali was honored by the Government of India with Padma Bhushan(1958), Padma Vibhushan (1976) and also nominated for the Rajya Sabha (1985).

To follow his passion and love for birds he traveled widely in the world. In his autobiography, The Fall of the Sparrow,  he said “When you are concentrating on the birds you forget most of the things. That moment is like  looking at a beautiful woman and you just enjoyed it”.   Nothing could stop him-bad weather or jagged terrain - he covered  every single corner of India.  Ali’s thirst for birds was never satisfied.  An old Snoopy man was always full of never ending energy.  The person of his age looks for peace and a quiet place to spend the rest of his life but Ali was like a great albatross who was flying at a great height, looking at each bird and enjoying the voice of the birds, a great music he never tired of hearing.

There is no match for him.  In many ways, Ali is in competition with himself.  No person so far,  has contributed as much as Ali did during his life towards the conservation of wildlife in India.  It is not easy to  define the personality of Dr. Ali. With binocular in neck and diary in hand,  Ali’s hawk eyes were always looking for birds.  Nothing would stop Ali from flying, even his prostate cancer.  At the age of 90 years, on 20 June 1987, he finally flew away with the yellow throat sparrow which he shot at the age of 10 years.   20th June 2017 will be his 30th death anniversary.
Dr. Salim’s contribution is matchless today.  His books and love for birds are inspiring the new generation.  Ali legacy lives forever.



WPA Newsletter on the Status of Pheasants in India

WPA Newsletter on the Status of Pheasants in India
-Usha Nair
The conservation of pheasants is a critical aspect of the current global effort to promote biodiversity in the face of increasing onslaught of developmental activities. Pheasants, the large long-tailed “game-birds” (Are they game birds or wild birds, vote in our poll), native to Asia, the male of which have very showy plumage, are the subject of interest for the World Pheasant Association. The March 17 newsletter of their Indian chapter, titled "MOR", highlights some of the concerns of the pheasant conservation activists in India.

Himalayan Monal male by Aditya Chavan @ Chandrashila Tungnath Uttarakhand, April 2017

The newsletter begins with the ground issues unearthed through their week-long field survey, conducted by them around pheasant- rich areas of Dirang and Mandla-Phudung  of West Kameng district, under the project  “Long Term Conservation of Pheasants in Western Arunachal Pradesh”, and their disappointment at not being able to sight any pheasant, reportedly because of their displacement of/killing by road construction workers.  The sighting of some other birds ,including the rare Black-necked Crane in Sangti valley, 8 km away from Dirang, partly compensated for the endeavour.  The WPA ,in coordination with local NGOs also successfully organised a training event for homestay hospitality and conservation tourism in Rupa (West Kameng district) attended by 73 villagers from different villages around Rupa. 
Other articles covered in the issue include one on the importance of parabiology training to aid the protection of biodiversity; an interesting insight into the descriptions  of pheasants contained in the treatises written by Mughal Emperors, Babur and Jahangir; and a commentary on the Himalayan Monal.

The newsletter carries an article on  parabiology, ( a term coined similar to paramedics) which seeks to involve local communities in conservation activities by training them to use ''field instruments such as GPS, camera-traps and radio-tracking to collect the data, data analysis, and other aspects of applied conservation, such as inventory, patrolling, planning, implementing and evaluating interventions, management decisions, monitoring, awareness, and policy-making'' (Anita Chauhan, author of ‘Conserving Asia’s Wildlife Treasure: The Pheasants’).  She refers to the Gubbi Labs in Gubbi, Karnataka (a private research training organisation),  which offers training to help citizen scientists and parabiologists, and forcefully argues for participatory conservation by local communities to ensure sustainable preservation of threatened pheasants. She opines that ‘conservation is not just a science but also a societal goal'.

The newsletter captures the detailed descriptions and illustrations of birds in the treatises by the Mughal Emperors, Babur, and Jahangir. Babur(1526-1530) is fascinated by the Indian peacock and furnishes extensive pictorial and written details of its plumage, as also of other birds and animals in his' Baburnama'.  Jahangir(1605-1627), his grandson, also has an eye for nature and its magnificent creatures, and in his 'Jahangirnama' gives elaborate details and illustrations of  nature's creations, including, pheasants  like,  Jan Bahman, the horned pheasant 'Sonlu' and the Himalayan Monal 'Shan’.  The newsletter goes on to add that today, the Himalayan Monal is the National Bird of Nepal and the state bird of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, and provides a detailed description of its habitat, its food habits, etc.  The constant threat of poaching has driven the need to open  Monal breeding centres in Uttarakhand Forest Division, Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary, Askot and Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary and at Manali. 

The Newsletter ends with a tribute to Mr. Duleep Matthai( born in Chennai on 18th October 1924 ; died in Vallabh Vidyanagar, Anand District, Gujarat, on 5th March 2017, aged 92) an environmentalist,  a founding trustee of the World Wildlife Fund in India, a member of important advisory bodies set up by the Government on environment-related issues.  Prof M.S.Swaminathan, father of the Indian Green Revolution regarded Mr.Matthai as the father of the ecological security movement in India.  Duleep Matthai's Nature Conservation Trust (DMNCT)  was a project sponsor for the publication of MOR, and in his death, India has lost a passionate and visionary  environmentalist. 
(Usha Nair is a nature lover and can be contacted at

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