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Strength in Numbers: 5 Amazing Animal Swarms

While a single animal may not catch the eye, when thousands or millions of them come together, it is an awe-inspiring—and sometimes fear-inspiring—sight to see. 

Swarms of Asian giant hornets have been in the news recently, after killing more than 40 people in northwestern China. (Read “Swarm Theory” in National Geographic magazine.)

But not all swarms are deadly. Animals congregate for different reasons: to migrate, find food, or defend against predators. These swarms are some of nature’s most magnificent spectacles. Read on to discover five incredible animals that swarm together to survive. (Watch a video of stellar animal swarms.)

Red Crabs

Each year, Christmas Island, a small Australian territory that is home to 1,500 people, gets blanketed in 60 million red crabs making their way to the sea.

Photo of a Christmas Island Red Crab mass crossing closed a road during annual migration.
Christmas Island red crabs cross a closed road during their annual migration. Photograph by Ingo Arndt, Minden Pictures/Corbis

At the beginning of the wet season in November or December, the crabs leave their burrows on the rain forest floor and crawl up to six miles to reach the ocean. There, the crabs mate.

The males march back inland; the females remain at the coast until their eggs develop. Just before dawn at high tide, the females release their eggs into the sea—up to 100,000 eggs each. After about a month, the larvae develop into baby crabs and leave the water to follow their parents’ footsteps back across the island and to the forest. (Related: “Pictures: Crab Swarms Overtake Island—Mystery Solved.”)

The baby crabs, only five millimeters across, spend their first three years hiding on the forest floor, until they are old enough to make the trek to breed and spawn themselves.

Free-Tailed Bats

Each evening from March through October, the skies of Austin, Texas, darken with bats on the hunt for food.

The Congress Avenue Bridge in downtown Austin is home to the largest urban bat colony in North America. Between 750,000 and 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats make their home there. Their nightly emergence has become a tourist attraction.

The colony consists mostly of pregnant females who have migrated north from Mexico to give birth, usually around June and July. By mid-August, the pups also begin flying, doubling the number of bats emerging from the bridge.

Mexican free-tailed bats have been known to fly up to 100 miles (160 kilometers) in an evening foraging for insects. It’s estimated that a colony of this size can consume 30,000 pounds of insects in a single night.

Desert Locusts

Notorious as a biblical plague, these insects are still capable of wreaking devastation on crops.

Photo of a Senegalese boy watching locusts swarm in Mbour village.
A Senegalese boy watches locusts swarm in Mbour village, northern Senegal, in 2004. Photograph by Pierre Holtz, Reuters/Corbis

Desert locusts are usually shy and solitary insects that live in dry regions from North Africa to India. But when conditions force them into close proximity, they make a remarkable transformation.

In this so-called gregarious phase, locusts turn from tan and green to black and yellow. They become aggressive, seeking out other locusts and coming together in a ravenous swarm. Locust swarms can contain a billion or more individuals that consume their own body weight daily. Large swarms can stretch for dozens of miles and strip entire fields of vegetation in minutes.

One of the worst locust swarms in modern times took place in 2004, when the insects swept across all of northern Africa, from Mauritania to Egypt, and eventually reached as far east as Israel and as far north as Portugal.

Monarch Butterflies

Each fall, tens of millions of North American monarch butterflies journey up to 3,000 miles to escape the cold winter months.

Monarchs east of the Rocky Mountains fly to central Mexico, while those west of the Rockies make their way to the California coast. These orange-and-black beauties migrate farther than any other butterfly, and they are the only butterfly to make a regular north-south migration like a bird. 

At their winter hibernation sites, monarchs cluster together to stay warm. Tens of thousands of butterflies can cluster on a single tree. (See more swarm pictures in National Geographic magazine.)

As they return north in the spring, the monarchs mate, lay eggs, and die. Successive generations continue to journey north, taking three to four generations to reach the northern United States and Canada.

Starling Murmurations

Videos of flocks of starlings in flight have gone viral. They feature a stunning example of collective behavior known as a starling murmuration. These aerial spectacles can be seen at dusk, when starlings flock together and seem to move as one. A murmuration can be made up of a few hundred to tens of thousands of birds.

starling picture
A flock of starlings. Photograph by Wolstenholme Images, Reuters/Corbis

 

What makes them mesmerizing is the strong coherence and extremely synchronized movements of the starlings. Scientists have recently determined that starlings in murmurations coordinate their movements with their seven nearest neighbors.

When one bird changes speed or direction, all the other birds in the vicinity respond in kind, and they do so nearly simultaneously. In this way, information spreads across the flock rapidly.

These graceful ballets are often responses to an approaching predator like a hawk, but also seem to occur spontaneously. Perhaps the starlings find their behavior as beautiful as we do.

Follow Mary Bates on Twitter and Facebook.

Comments

  1. SANJAY
    INDIA
    October 24, 2013, 6:00 am

    U FORGET ABOUT THE PENGUINS

  2. MrBratpacker
    Philippines
    October 23, 2013, 11:38 am

    I hope you can feature some more and with more photos.

  3. VIVEK PRIME
    India
    October 23, 2013, 7:52 am

    COOL………………….GREAT TIMING…….ITS A MATTER OF LUCK TOO FOR GETTING THE CORRECT OPPORTUNITY TO THE DESIRED PERSON

  4. Jimmy nehemiah
    Kuala Lumpur
    October 23, 2013, 4:15 am

    Awesome works of Nature !

  5. Estela Munt
    Mar del Plata - Argentina
    October 23, 2013, 3:33 am

    Muy interesantes todos los temas abordados.
    Excelentes imágenes.
    Lástima que el traductor que utilizan es una máquina no supervisada y escribe verbos en infinitivo o como sustantivos. Hay que ir descifrando lo que quiere decir en algunos casos. Pierdes la concentración de lo que lees.

  6. Thiago S Cunha
    Brazil
    October 22, 2013, 10:46 pm

    wow, wonderful pictures!!! Good Job!

  7. Seth Wilson
    United States
    October 22, 2013, 8:38 pm

    you forgot about the honey bees

  8. Danie Oosthuizen
    South Africa
    October 22, 2013, 2:37 pm

    wow nature is asome

  9. Sandeep
    India
    October 22, 2013, 2:26 pm

    Thanks for the wonderfully educative article and the fantastic photos.

  10. Shannon
    Chicago
    October 22, 2013, 1:42 pm

    This is so beautiful- the birds are the most enchanting. Tell me, can Murmurations be also smaller groups of birds? I ask because I see birds in the city in Chicago flying in these groupings and have always wondered if there was a name that referred to this behavior.

  11. Ngan Quach
    Australia
    October 22, 2013, 8:55 am

    Very cool! Thank you for the trivia and beautiful images..:)

    • Mary Bates
      October 22, 2013, 1:20 pm

      Thanks for reading! I’m glad you liked it.

  12. prash kadam
    Mumbai
    October 22, 2013, 6:09 am

    Thank you for these wonderful images…………
    that’s amazing!!!!!!!

    • Mary Bates
      October 22, 2013, 1:23 pm

      I agree! Thanks for the comment!

  13. YuYun
    Malaysia
    October 22, 2013, 3:00 am

    Amazing!!!

  14. Salman Zubairy
    INDIA
    October 22, 2013, 1:51 am

    What a Massage …… amazing!

  15. Eric Simpson
    United States
    October 22, 2013, 1:02 am

    re: starlings: “murmuration” is the term for the flock, not the aerial display. You’d think NatGeo would get that right.

  16. Bibek Bastola
    Nepal
    October 22, 2013, 12:47 am

    amazing

  17. Kirby Fl
    Canada
    October 22, 2013, 12:46 am

    Sounds like the cougars. On a Friday night, they all flock together to the nearest bar or pub, and patiently wait for their next victim. They do this every week, it seems

  18. Kauangal Jignesh
    India
    October 21, 2013, 10:55 pm

    Quite Informative…..

  19. belinda Freeman
    London
    October 21, 2013, 3:37 am

    We have the most beautiful unimaginable world. Thank you for these wonderful images

    • Mary Bates
      October 22, 2013, 1:22 pm

      I think so, too. It was fascinating researching this story.

  20. Ken Albertsen
    October 17, 2013, 11:56 pm

    …..and people: Chinese New Year in China.

  21. Kai S. Lee
    October 17, 2013, 9:57 pm

    Imagine that. A Migrating crab-fest. Tasty!!
    But Locusts, they are interesting, most likely more fascinating than tasty… yeah, that sounds accurate.

    -Kai S. Lee

  22. Dave R
    Canada
    October 17, 2013, 6:03 pm

    The depressing part is that the Monarchs aren’t migrating in the numbers that they use to. The Monarch banding festival in Point Pelee Ontario was actually cancelled because of the lack of numbers. Hopefully they come back.

  23. luis
    raleigh, nc
    October 17, 2013, 4:51 pm

    This article made me think of the Emperor penguins that must huddle together in the thousands just to survive the harsh Antarctic winters.

    • Mary Bates
      October 22, 2013, 1:23 pm

      Thanks for the comment! Emperor penguins are another great example of animals finding strength in numbers.

  24. emma vceego
    October 16, 2013, 11:59 pm

    that’s amazing! but locusts are disgusting.

  25. emma vceego
    October 16, 2013, 11:58 pm

    that’s amazing!