March of the Locusts

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Science  02 Jun 2006:
Vol. 312, Issue 5778, pp. 1273l
DOI: 10.1126/science.312.5778.1273l

Locust swarms can invade large areas of Earth's land surface and are estimated to affect the livelihood of one in ten people on the planet. The key to effective management of locust outbreaks is early detection of the marching juveniles (bands), because control of flying swarms is costly and ineffective. Buhl et al. (p. 1402; see the Perspective by Grünbaum) reveal that there is a critical density at which locusts will begin collective motion. The onset of this behavior is characterized by a sudden switch from disordered movement of individuals in the group to highly aligned collective motion. The nonlinearity of this transition means that small increases in density can result in abrupt changes in collective motion. The results match predictions from models of phase transitions from disorder to order in statistical physics. These models can permit scaling from laboratory experiments to large populations in the field and hence inform plans for controlling locust outbreaks.

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