Team power: Collec­tive Intel­li­gence

The fascinating phenomenon of collective intelligence is widely spread among animals. Our blog article provides you with valuable background information about group intelligence.


If many independent individuals of a species come together to form a closed group, they are often capable of highly complex and efficient processes. This phenomenon known as "swarm intelligence" is widespread throughout the animal kingdom. Whether swarm, herd or pack – the phenomenon of group formation in the animal kingdom is widespread and constantly poses new riddles to science.

A swarm is generally understood to be a group of floating or flying animals such as fish, insects or birds. In most cases, there is no social bond between the single individuals, group formation is merely a result of environmental influences. For example, fish come together to minimise predation pressure, i.e. the risk of being eaten by a predator, because in a closed group the individual is less susceptible to being eaten (safety in numbers principle). This strategy can also be observed in birds or insects. Another example is the group formation during the mating season, in order to increase the individual reproductive success.

The term “herd” is known particularly from the cattle drive, however, it doesn't only refer to domesticated types, but also to big wild mammals that appear in loose social associations. On the other hand there is the pack, in which there is a strong social structure and usually a pronounced group hierarchy. Wolves and lions are a well-known example of pack-forming animals.


The commonly used term "swarm intelligence" generally refers to the communication between individuals of a species and their specific actions that produce intelligent behaviours within the community, the so-called "superorganism". Sometimes the term "swarm intelligence" is misleading because it suggests that such behaviour only occurs in swarming animals such as fish, birds or insects. Since these can be observed, however, also with herds or packs, one frequently speaks of "collective intelligence" in the scientific sense.

In general, a collective and self-organized interaction of individuals leads to certain behavioural that can be regarded as "intelligent action" from a human perspective. A prime example of this is the formation of states in ants. The individual in the ant colony is rather limited in terms of efficiency and performance, but within the group skills and complex processes are developed that ultimately enable a targeted search for food or the construction of a nest. In most cases, they communicate with the help of fragrances, so-called pheromones. If an ant finds a food source, it secretes scents on its return to the nest, which are recognized by other ants. On differently long or short ways, the other ants try to reach the food source. The choice of path is random but the ants that choose the shortest path return faster to the nest, leaving a pheromone trail as well. So it happens that after a short time the highest pheromone concentration is reached by the shortest route, i.e. the ants follow more and more the shortest route: A straight line ant road has been created.


By the way, this principle is used under the term "ant colony optimization algorithm" (ACO) in computer science, especially for systemic optimization questions. Our entomology course in the Peruvian rainforest, for example, introduces insects which are characterised by strong social behaviour and swarm intelligence. As a course participant you can experience the phenomena that have been described above from up close.


Peter Miller: Die Intelligenz des Schwarms. Was wir von Tieren für unser Leben in einer komplexen Welt lernen können. Campus-Verlag, Frankfurt am Main u. a. 2010*

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