Hey whats up everybody I just had ice cream for breakfast and now I’ma get real personal with you today. When I first started getting into biology, I was a wildlife man. I spent a bunch of summers studying breeding bird populatios (that’s not a typo) up in Alaska, where I was prolly happier than I’ve ever been. It was light all the time, we got to carry shotguns around, it was psychotically beautiful and it looks exactly like it looked 5,000 years ago and actually there are gyrfalcon nests that have been continually used for thousands of years so there are just massive piles of bird shit and tiny skeletons at the bottom of the cliffs below. Grizzly bears and lynx and wolves doing it big just like they have since the ice age, all that.
But the thing was that because those wild and free Alaskan birds are so obviously more important than we humans are, it was really hard to actually do experiments. The last thing you’d ever want to do is interfere with a bird that’s been nesting in the same place for thousands of years, because who the fuck do you think you are? As they say, “there’s no pape sick enough to kill that animal, my friend.” So, that leaves with the type of science I was doing up there: respectfully searching for nests, counting the eggs, counting trees, measuring rainfall, etc. etc. which is totally worthwhile info don’t get me wrong but its pretty hard to do things like control experiments or actually just experiments at all. For instance my senior thesis I studied the amount of moose hair in the nest of the arctic warbler, which was really important because I don’t remember why.
The point is, a lot of times there is a trade-off between how a sick a natural phenomenon is and how possible it is to actually study it. If you want to suckle at that everflowing data teat, you often have to work on lab animals. Thats what made me get into developmental biology, because you have something that is impossibly sick (a single cell knowing how to build an entire animal including brain and skeleton) but you can actually study it for real. But man - even as sick as lab science can get, wouldn’t it be sick to get to actually study the coolest shit in the world out in the wild?
Now then, we all know that without question coolest thing in the world is when animals get together in insanely huge groups and take on emergent properties that look like what tripping feels like. But of course there’s something inherently hard about studying enormous groups of animals though, cause for instance how the fuck would you actually study one of those huge swarms of birds?
Mr. Couzin recently dropped an especially nasty entry in the Collective Book of Human Wisdom:
Bazazi, S. et al. Collective Motion and Cannibalism in Locust Migratory Bands. Current Biology 18, 735–739 (2008).
How often do you get to read a pape that starts with: “Plagues of mass migrating insects such as locusts are estimated to affect the livelihood of one in ten people on the planet.” It is straight up impossible to imagine how big these swarms are, but you can definitely see them from outer space as they eat large portions of Africa.
What Monsiour Couzin figured out in this pape is that the reason these locusts are collectively migrating is that they’re all trying to eat each other from behind. They’re all just starving and trying to cannibalize each other from behind while flying away from the psychopath thats trying to each THEM. The pape is a set of simple experiments to show that, if the locusts aren’t aware of the lurking cannibals creeping up behind them, they don’t start to migrate.
If you ask me, this finding is 1) a great metaphor to help you sympathize with difficult people in your lives (like, you think they are trying to hurt you but actually they’re just going through some nightmare you can’t possibly imagine) and 2) a deeply weird and surprising result.
We all have something to learn from the Couzin lifestyle of just identfying the coolest thing in the world and then figuring out how to study it even if no one else does and it seems impossible. Have a great weekend everybody!!