Publish at January 19 2022 Updated January 28 2022

What cyclists and starlings tell us about collective intelligence

Murmuration : when a large number of individuals coordinate with precision

Murmuration defines the collective behavior of very large numbers of individuals, who coordinate in a very rigorous way in complex movements without a conductor. Starlings, schools of fish or bicycle racers illustrate this intriguing phenomenon.

In the absence of a leader and a hierarchy, tens of thousands of individuals manage to adjust their actions , flow a piece of information and optimize a movement.

Many disciplines have been looking at this phenomenon, relying on recent technologies. Observation with the naked eye makes one dizzy as it is so difficult to follow an individual in the middle of a fast moving crowd and even more difficult to analyze his behavior. In recent years, very high definition cameras capable of filming at more than 80 frames per second have made it possible to analyze the flight of birds and identify what influences their course.

Mathematicians have modeled the curves, technicians have organized synchronized image taking from multiple cameras, 3D modeling systems attempt to reproduce the movement of birds. Wonderopolis lets us know that the physical sciences provide valuable insights: the formation of crystals, avalanches or gases would be quite close to the dynamics of thousands of murmuring birds...

Observed and analyzed from all sides, the birds have finally revealed some of their secrets!

What we understand about murmuration

The hypothesis of a charismatic conductor, fish, bird or grasshopper was quickly abandoned. The time of transmission or reception of the information would not allow the observed speed.

Another hypothesis: a very extended attention capacity that would lead individuals to take a huge amount of information about their environment. Observation shows that this is not the case. Birds, fish or cyclists coordinate their movements according to a very small number of variables.

For example, a cyclist will only pay attention to the one in front of him, the other two to the sides and slightly in front... and that's it. He will be sensitive to the angles between his path and other cyclists and to distances. He forms a diamond shape with the three in front of him. This explains spectacular and a priori incomprehensible falls when obstacles, however large, stand in their way, outside this field of attention.

The rhombus, or diamond for the more lyrical researchers, is related to our angle of vision. We see clearly over an angle of 30°. Beyond that, distance perception loses accuracy.

The study of jackdaws by Guillam McIvor also reveals a low attention span by these birds close to crows. An asset for mass movement that nevertheless slows down any reaction to predator attacks, according to the author, who imagines that some elements of his modeling could be used to study panic movements.

In flight, a bird caught in a wave of murmuring pays attention to only up to seven others. These groups of tens of thousands of individuals thus break down into subgroups of up to seven individuals, which are themselves not organized by any hierarchy, whether they are fish, insects, birds... or cyclists.

This organization optimizes attention. So much so that in the sprint phase, when the riders' energy is focused on the finish, the diamond changes shape and loses width. This simplifies the runners' alertness to their immediate surroundings, since what is important is in a narrower visual angle.

Being Inspired by Murmuration

Reproducing Collective Intelligence: Apium Swarm

Apium Swarm is a robotics company that uses whispering phenomena to make many robots work with each other, underwater or in the air. Communications between the robots help avoid collisions as the machines move at different speeds. When they return to charge their batteries, others take over and automatically settle into the collective movement,

The angle of vision, a pedagogical tool?

Will Weston, drawing trainer for animation professionals uses the principles of whispering. Adapting to people directly in the trainees' field of vision. Vicarious learning (which substitutes for something else) works through observation. What is within the 30° angle is observed well and effortlessly. Then you have to divide the participants in the workshops according to their level, their participation, their ability to coach. In an interview cited in a previous article, Will Weston explains how he places the best people so that they are visible to others and drive a rhythm, while training by example those who will find them in their angle.

Whispering will also defeat quality approaches, where every malfunction or preventive action results in additional checkpoints, at the expense of overview, responsiveness, and actual work. How many birds would fall on a daily basis if their flight were organized by qualiticians or managers?

Illustrations: Frédéric Duriez


Belden J., Mansoor M. M., Hellum A ., Rahman S. R., Meyer A., Pease C., Pacheco J., Koziol S. and Truscott T. T. 2019 How vision governs the collective behavior of dense cycling pelotonsJ. R. Soc. Interface.162019019720190197

Guillam McIvor - Friends that fly places: studying collective behavior in wild jackdaws- ecology and evolution friends-in-fly-places-studying-collective-behaviour-in-wild-jackdaws

Wonderopolis - What is a murmuration

George Jacobs - Eat Blue - What is murmuration- published March 2, 2021, accessed January 12, 2022

Artstechnica- Cyclists in the Tour de France behave just like Starlings - accessed January 12, 2022

Frédéric Duriez - thot - meeting inspirational teachers - September 2019

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