What do sandpipers and chorus lines have in common?

Both manage to transcend the reaction times of their species when they execute maneuvers. They do it by keeping their eyes on the group, and working something called a maneuver wave.

Flocking behavior in birds has long been admired. No one bird makes the decisions, but they all move together and stay together. How? The easy answer would be to say that they just kept their eyes on their closest neighbors, but some careful observation disproved that idea. It all started with a scientist, Wayne Potts, filming sandpipers running across the sand. After he examined each frame of the film, he noticed that the each new collective movement traveled like a wave across the group. The wave started slow, with the first follower of a new maneuver clocking in a reaction time of 67 milliseconds, or a little less than twice as fast as a standard 38 millisecond reaction time for that species of bird. As it spreads, it goes faster and faster, until the overall wave moves at a rate of about 15 milliseconds per bird, and occasionally less. He called this the maneuver wave.

The wave isn’t limited to animals that move on instinct. Chorus lines get up to a reaction time for wavelike maneuvers that’s faster than each individual human's reaction time. Potts called his idea of the mechanics bird motion the "chorus line hypothesis." It’s the humans, who as professionals certainly know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, that provide clues to birds.


Potts believes that a few birds send of preliminary signals that a waves is about to begin. The first birds are slow to respond, but as the wave gains momentum, each bird plans ahead and calculates its own movements to coincide with its neighbors, giving the overall wave a faster speed than any single bird could have on its own.

What’s interesting about this isn’t that it happens in birds. It’s not so surprising that they’re aware and reacting to more than just their immediate neighbors. What’s interesting is that we’ve deliberately given it an exact correlation with the human world. Either we are attracted to this motion as instinctively as the birds are, or we’re engaging in unintentional natural mimicry. A lot has been made of birds imitating humans – wild birds model their calls on car alarms and parrots will mimic human words. It turns out that we may, through coordinated dance, unknowingly have been imitating birds.

Image: Shawn Lea


Via Nature and Dawn Light.