Mathematicians say that by using their newly developed model of locust behaviour, it could be possible to create better dispersal methods to prevent the creatures causing devastation. Jim Drury reports.
Locust swarms can spell devastation. In 2013 half of Madagascar's countryside was infested, each swarm containing millions of locusts eating their own body weight daily. British mathematicians have devised an algorithmic model mimicking the insect's behaviour, which they think might help understand swarms - and potentially aid plague prevention. First they asked University of Adelaide colleagues to film the pests. SOUNDBITE (English) DR CHRISTIAN YATES, LEAD AUTHOR, UNIVERSITY OF BATH, SAYING: "They took a ring-shaped arena, pretty much like the table I've got in front of me. There was an area in the middle where the locusts couldn't go and they put a wall round the outside. They put a few locusts into the arena, and they watched to see what these locusts would do; and so, when you put five or six locusts into the arena like we have here they just march around randomly, they don't really pay much attention to each other. But as soon as you put more locusts into the arena they all start to march together in the arena around the same direction." It's the first time researchers have shown that locusts interact with at least two of their immediate neighbours when deciding on their marching direction. The more locusts join the swarm, the less directional switching occurs, creating a stable throng. Their other discovery was that locusts are sensitive to randomness, such as wind. SOUNDBITE (English) DR CHRISTIAN YATES, LECTURER IN MATHEMATICAL BIOLOGY AT UNIVERSITY OF BATH, SAYING: "If we can somehow increase the external noise that these locusts are experiencing then we might be able to break up the swarm...one option is to maybe fly planes close to the locusts which will increase the disturbances in the air. Other possibilities are maybe using some sort of ultrasonic device to disturb the locusts." The team says the model could also work on swarms of crickets.