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NATURE: The Gathering Swarms

Airs Wednesday, May 28, 2014 at 8 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: Swarm of mayflies over camera lens.

Get a look at some of the planet’s great gatherings, creatures that come together in inconceivable numbers — sometimes in millions, billions, even trillions. Included are bats and bees, locusts and ants, monarch butterflies in Mexico, 17-year cicada hatches, grunion in the Sea of Cortez and carp in the Mississippi River, sardine runs off the coast of South Africa, super flocks of parakeets in the Australian Outback, mayflies on the 4th of July and even penguins and wildebeest.

Some gather to breed or to migrate, some for protection, some simply to keep warm in the cold. But in the process, a kind of super-organism is created in which individual intelligence is superseded by a collective consciousness that shares information and moves with a single purpose for the benefit of all.

Check out swarm intelligence, essentially a living embodiment of social media in the natural world. Using high-speed camera techniques, "The Gathering Swarms" captures these world-wide displays and explains why they occur.

NATURE is a production of THIRTEEN Productions LLC for WNET. For NATURE, Fred Kaufman is executive producer. "The Gathering Swarms" is a production of John Downer Productions for THIRTEEN Productions LLC and BBC in association with WNET.

NATURE is on Facebook, Tumblr and you can follow @PBSNature on Twitter. Past episodes of NATURE are available for online viewing.

The Gathering Swarms

Get a look at some of the planet’s great gatherings, creatures that come together in inconceivable numbers — sometimes in millions, billions, even trillions. In the process, a kind of super-organism is created in which individual intelligence is superseded by a collective consciousness that shares information and moves with a single purpose for the benefit of all.

Emperor Penguins Huddle to Keep Warm

As the only creatures on earth to breed in the Antarctic winter, their survival, as well as those of their chicks, is put in jeopardy when the temperature falls to 40 below. So, instinctively, emperor penguins all converge on the same central point and begin to form a huddle. As those on the outside take the brunt of the cold, those on the inside take tiny steps that move the huddle in waves.

Gulf Grunion Beach Spawning

In Sonora, Mexico, thousands of Gulf Grunion fish act on a seemingly suicidal desire to breed out of water. The female grunion deposit eggs in the sand as far from aquatic predators as possible. The eggs remain buried in the wet sand and hatch in about 10 days, at which point the young grunion make their way back into the water.

Sardine Run in South Africa

The seasonal movement of billions of sardines along the coast of South Africa, the greatest fish migration on the planet, includes a stunning example of collective thinking to throw off predators. Synchronous movement by the sardines relies on a pressure sense that runs along their bodies to detect the movements of their nearest neighbors.