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Blue rockfish swimming in a large group.

Research shows flocking birds, schooling fish, other collective movements can stabilize ecosystems

By Steve Lundeberg

A new study shows that collective behavior has a stabilizing effect on ecosystems

In addition to being visually stunning, schools of herring, herds of wildebeest and countless other groups of organisms that act in concert can help complex ecosystems maintain their diversity and stability, new research by Oregon State University shows.

Published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, the study demonstrates that when individuals band together to consume resources as a collective group, the surrounding ecosystem is prone to be more resilient and able to support a wider range of species.

Ben Dalziel and Mark Novak of the College of Science, plus James Watson of the Oregon State College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and Stephen Ellner of Cornell University collaborated on the study.

Their findings could be an important step toward understanding how cooperation and biodiversity help living systems stay on an even keel. “We constructed simulations in such a way that we could turn collective behavior on and off without changing anything else in the system,” Dalziel said. “What we found was that adding collective behavior was a game changer in the simulations – it stabilized ecosystems.” Since collective behavior is ubiquitous across the planet, playing a prominent role in everything from bacterial biofilms to human cities, the study’s findings have wide significance.

The National Science Foundation, DARPA, the National Institutes of Health and NASA supported this research.

Read complete OSU press release.