Playing a game of telephone isn’t just for kids. Animals play games, too. They whisper to each other to communicate important messages and coordinate their behaviors, but they don’t typically garble the message. The proper term for these whispers, or murmurs, is a “murmuration.” The most famous of these happens amongst birds — starlings in particular. There are some amazing videos of the patterns starlings create by moving together as one body.

In the ocean world, this happens with fish. Instead of a murmuration, when fish move together, it is called “schooling,” but the concept is the same. No matter the type, animals move together for a number of reasons. Physics plays a role in that birds flying in a flock are able to ride in each other’s draft and thus fly with much less effort. The same is true of fish. If you’re a bike rider, you may have experienced this when riding close behind another rider and feeling pulled along. But, unlike birds and fish, humans don’t naturally move in groups. They have to learn to do it.

Murmurations in animals appear to be instinctive. This is most likely because sticking close together helps to protect each individual animal from predators — safety in numbers. There’s not only a smaller chance that one animal will be eaten, but also the fact that the group can defend itself together both directly and by confusing a would-be predator. So, animals that grouped together survived better, reproduced more, and eventually the population evolved to instinctively “murmur” together.

While the reasons for this group movement aren’t hard to discern, just how they do it is more complicated. How can they be so close to each other but not run into each other? Their coordination is very precise with distances between individuals all being the same. In fish, they have sensory cells called neuromasts that detect vibrations. These are often located along a fish’s lateral line, the line that runs along the side of the body that is visible in some species. Birds, however, don’t have a lateral line, but may have some type of similar cell. They are also able to use magnetism to help them in group movements just the same as they use in migration.

One of the most common schooling fish along the Maine coast is menhaden, or pogies. These are typically used as bait and are caught in purse seines that can scoop them up because they swim in schools. Pogies are fun to watch because, on warm days, they come to the surface and flip around, slapping the water. You can also see striped bass or seals nearby a school or pogies as they chase a potential meal.

As with many elements in the natural world, there is often something to be learned from an adaptation or a behavior. Perhaps the human form of murmuration is less physical and more purely communicative. It is a way to share information and spread important messages. It also makes me think of my column a few weeks ago about the Clean Water Act and the ability of many people all working towards a huge goal to accomplish something together. When it comes to taking care of our coastal resources, sharing information is a way to murmur the importance of stewardship by all of its residents.

Comments are not available on this story.