Phase Coexistence in Insect Swarms

Animal aggregations are visually striking, and as such are popular examples of collective behavior in the natural world. Quantitatively demonstrating the collective nature of such groups, however, remains surprisingly difficult. Inspired by thermodynamics, we applied topological data analysis to laboratory insect swarms and found evidence for emergent, material-like states. We show that the swarms consist of a core “condensed” phase surrounded by a dilute “vapor” phase. These two phases coexist in equilibrium, and maintain their distinct macroscopic properties even though individual insects pass freely between them. We further define a pressure and chemical potential to describe these phases, extending theories of active matter to aggregations of macroscopic animals and laying the groundwork for a thermodynamic description of collective animal groups.


Phase Coexistence in Insect Swarms
Michael Sinhuber and Nicholas T. Ouellette
Phys. Rev. Lett. 119, 178003 – Published 24 October 2017