Flow interactions lead to self-organized flight formations disrupted by self-amplifying waves

Joel W. Newbolt, Nickolas Lewis, Mathilde Bleu, Jiajie Wu, Christiana Mavroyiakoumou, Sophie Ramananarivo, Leif Ristroph

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Collectively locomoting animals are often viewed as analogous to states of matter in that group-level phenomena emerge from individual-level interactions. Applying this framework to fish schools and bird flocks must account for visco-inertial flows as mediators of the physical interactions. Motivated by linear flight formations, here we show that pairwise flow interactions tend to promote crystalline or lattice-like arrangements, but such order is disrupted by unstably growing positional waves. Using robotic experiments on “mock flocks” of flapping wings in forward flight, we find that followers tend to lock into position behind a leader, but larger groups display flow-induced oscillatory modes – “flonons” – that grow in amplitude down the group and cause collisions. Force measurements and applied perturbations inform a wake interaction model that explains the self-ordering as mediated by spring-like forces and the self-amplification of disturbances as a resonance cascade. We further show that larger groups may be stabilized by introducing variability among individuals, which induces positional disorder while suppressing flonon amplification. These results derive from generic features including locomotor-flow phasing and nonreciprocal interactions with memory, and hence these phenomena may arise more generally in macroscale, flow-mediated collectives.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number3462
JournalNature communications
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2024

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Chemistry
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Physics and Astronomy


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