Wednesday, June 8, 2022

SearchResearch Challenge (6/8/22): Why do gnats DO that?

 At the beach I ran into a cloud of gnats... 

... and maybe you have as well. Annoying, amirite? 

One of the defining features of SRS is a deep curiosity about things that you find, or in this case, you stumble into while on walkabout.  I grabbed this short video because I could actually see the gnats against the darker rock in the shadow.  They seemed to form an almost stationary cloud over this brighter patch of rock. 

I stood there for several minutes watching the cloud swirl around almost like a tiny murmuration of starlings.  I'm sure other people walking on the beach thought I was daft, staring at something they couldn't see, moving my hand slowly to see if they'd move out of the way.  (Answer: they'd dodge my hand, but the mass of gnats stayed hovering over the same place.)  

When I find something like this, I get curious and starting asking myself some basic questions: Why?  How?  What-for?  

And then I usually head home and search for deeper answers to the questions that rise to the surface.  (And if it's a really interesting thing I see, I write down the questions for later research.  As someone once said, "the most profound misunderstanding of human memory is that you'll remember that later...")  

So my Challenge for you, after my beach walk is this: 

1. Why do gnats and starlings murmurate?  (Is that even the right language to use?)  What's a good search strategy to find the answer?  Do they murmurate for the same reason?  

It's a great, curious thing to see beautiful behaviors in the world and try to understand them.  Tell us what you did to understand these behaviors.  Let us know in the comments below, won't you? 

Search on! 


  1. First quick search [why gnats murmurate]

    WHY GNATS SWARM,scent%20even%20from%20a%20distance.

    1. Also searched [ Gnats in Spanish] to know what are they.

      [Amirite in Spanish] and then define amirita. That didn't work so [define Amirite] to understand the correct meaning of the word.

    2. Searched [murmurate]
      The technical name for this phenomenon is a murmuration

      [birds murmuration]

      The Incredible Science Behind Starling Murmurations: Where and Why They Form. I like that the site mentions: Fact checked

      It's very interesting. The bigger surprise for me was: "Murmuration forms when one starling copies the behavior of its seven neighbors..."

      With [birds murmuration difference gnats]


      Starling murmurations: the science behind one of nature's greatest displays

      [Gnats swarm science]

      From LiveScience:
      Swarm of gnats — a loose name for mini mosquito look-alikes called midges.

      The definition of a swarm is as fluid as a swarm itself. "It's any aggregation of individuals for the purposes of attracting mates," Courtney said.


    3. ​@Ramon: ¿Ud. aprendió la significa de "Amirite"?

    4. Yes, Mateojose1.

      With [Define Amirite], Google answers that is: Informal•US for : Am I right?

  2. A quick search on Goofram Search for a definition and explanation of murmurate provided an article on why starlings being the only bird that murmurate

    1. I think if you read that article again, you'll see that it says "starlings are NOT the only species that murmurates"!

  3. First things first. About the language, I consulted my faithful friend, the OED, and found:

    For “murmurate”:

    “No dictionary entries found for ‘murmurate’.”

    So I tried “murmuration” and got results.

    “A flock (of starlings); spec. (in later use) a large gathering of starlings creating intricate patterns in flight. One of many alleged group terms originating in late Middle English glossarial sources; found only in glossaries until revived and popularized in the mid-19th cent.
    “a1450 Terms Assoc. in PMLA (1936) 51 603 (MED) A murmuracione of stares.”
    “b. The noise made by a flock of birds, esp. starlings.
    “1897 Temple Bar Aug. 549 Flocks of starlings wheel hither and thither, sweeping over the fields, now alighting with loud murmuration in the reeds.”

    So the OED likes the noun and not the verb, though the noun appears to refer to birds.

    However, Wiktionary found the word “murmurate” in English, Esperanto, and Latin, as a verb, adverb, and participle respectively.
    I also found a website “How to Murmurate and Make a Difference”
    about watching starlings in a village in County Cork and ending with the phrase “even lawyers can murmurate!”

  4. [Why do gnats swarm?]

    “It turns out that gnats swarm because of the birds and bees. That's right. Swarms of these tiny insects are beneficial for mating, according to Live Science.
    “The swarms make it easier for the male and female gnats to find each other and mate, Gregory Courtney, an entomology professor at Iowa State University, told Live Science.
    “Gnats will often congregate around objects or other visual markers that contrast the landscape, such as fence posts, Courtney said. This helps the females more easily see the swarm. Only male gnats swarm. The females then identify the swarm and enter it to mate.”
    “… but why do gnats insist on crowding together in the same tiny air space?

    ‘The bottom line is most male flies swarm,’ Courtney told Live Science. ‘It's an important mechanism for the two sexes to find each other.’ Male gnats always swarm in order to attract females, but the location of that swarm depends on their surroundings.”
    I’m going to believe Dr. Courtney. Investigating him revealed that two of his areas of research are arthropod diversity and insect taxonomy. I recommend the above article, which explains why only males swarm, though females will enter a swarm.

    As for starlings, I found the same resource cmarlowe did:

    “Starlings are most commonly known to show this behavior. Other birds that murmurate are raptors, european honey buzzard, geese, red knots, robins, flamingos, and dunlins. These birds mostly flock together in a V shape to migrate efficiently.
    “Although Starlings are not the only birds that do it, a murmuration is a term more specifically used for starling flocks. Starlings use murmuration to confuse predators and to keep warm. Most other birds 'flock together' to travel long distances and flocking reduces their energy expenditure.”

    Apparently starlings do swarm for a variety of reasons. According to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, these reasons include protection from predators, keeping warm, exchanging information, and mating.

    This talk of swarming reminded me of our very own Florida lovebugs. According to various sites they swarm for pretty much the same reason as their fellow insects.
    Males swarm over places where they know females will soon emerge. The females fly into swarms of the hovering males, typically from 8 to 10 a.m. and from 4 to 5 p.m.

  5. …where is all that murmuring buzzing coming from? and why are they smoking teeny-tiny cigarets?
    the Goofram SERP, idnkt
    mathematical modeling 7
    Datafication of the Starling
    "First recorded in 1350–1400; Middle English, from Middle French murmuration, from Latin murmurātiōn-, stem of murmurātiō; see origin at murmur, -ation"
    ay least these can be eaten, after de-sanding…

  6. Part 1

    Answer to the first question (Why do gnats and starlings murmurate?):

    ​First search - define:murmurate

    The result I got was for the noun "murmuration," which means "a flock of starlings." So, since it looked like the gnats were swarming, I decided to use the word "swarm" instead.

    Second search: Why gnats swarm

    * - Mathlady already went over this source, and quoted the relevant parts. But, in summary, it's because male gnats are trying to mate (the females fly into the swarm and mate, though they're not sure how they pick their mate[s]). And, given that the article also indicated that predators (such as dragonflies) see the swarm as an all-you-can-eat buffet, it may also be a safety in numbers type of situation.

    Note: According to Media Bias Factcheck (, Live Science is a pro-science site that is highly factual, so I am going to trust what the article indicates. (As well, Mathlady evaluated the Iowa State professor that explained why gnats swarm.)

    * - Swarms tend to not be long-lived, since adults have short lifespans (somewhere between three and 11 days), which are affected by variables like temperature and food supply. Too, the swarming insects serve as food for dragonflies, fish, and birds.

    (The entomologist that article cited, Allan Lawrence, has written a number of publications [], and is an associate curator of entomology at Peggy Notebeart Nature Museum [], so he is a credible source.)

    Continued in Part 2

  7. Part 2

    I got curious about why gnats swarm as a mating strategy, so I looked it up: (search term: gnats swarming mating behavior

    * - It went over how gnats mature in ponds and other areas of water (including polluted or stagnant water), where they eat plant matter (and are in turn eaten by other creatures). The adults then emerge, form swarms for purposes of mating (though they prefer areas with light), lay eggs on aquatic vegetation or in the water, and then die. That, and they don't eat at all while they're swarming and mating. Too, their swarms don't last very long, so, even though they can be a nuisance, it is only temporary.

    (The source is the University of Kentucky's College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, so I consider it to be trustworthy.)

    I still wanted to know why they formed swarms to mate, so I used the search term "why gnats form swarms to mate." One result I got ( went into more detail on how it works (the males form swarms, the females go to them and pick males that are bigger or that have a more impressive pattern of flying, they tend to appear in the warmer months [up in Canada], and they prefer mating near tall objects [including people]), plus the person who went over it was (at the time) a Master's student in entomology.

  8. Part 3

    At that point, I had a pretty good idea about the gnat swarming behavior and had confirmed my understanding of it. But, I still didn't know why, exactly, they did that to mate rather than something else. So, I decided to do a broader search (why insects form swarms to mate). Here's what I found:

    * - A number of insect species (including bees, mosquitoes, grasshoppers, butterflies, and midges) all fly in swarms, and tend to do it either for mating or travel, with the former tending to not move much but the latter moving significantly more. Their motions while swarming have been studied extensively.
    Note: Surprisingly, Media Bias Factcheck ( had nothing on Cell. However, its Wikipedia entry ( indicates that it is a peer-reviewed scientific journal published by Cell Press.
    * - According to this entry, swarming is the term used when lots of insects fly together, while murmuration or flocking is used with birds. It goes over swarming behaviors in numerous different kinds of animals, so I clicked on the link for flies (, since gnats are a type of fly ( And, it confirmed some things I'd read about why gnats (and some insects) swarm, including where they do it (above high points), when they do it (evening), and how a reason for it is mating. It also indicated that it's not instinctive, but is more of an adaptive behavior, and also that male flies are seldom on their own. It also described it as "lek mating," so I clicked on the Wikipedia entry on that (, and read about it. This entry indicated that it's a mating behavior used by males of a number of species, in which they stage displays and try to get the females (who are observing them) to choose them for mating purposes. Too, it benefits both males and females by improving their odds of mating, plus it reduces females' odds of becoming some predator's next meal (since they do not have to travel so far to mate). Finally, there are several hypotheses that attempt to explain this type of behavior.

    I wanted to verify the points that article had made about lek mating, so I decided to do a search for that (lek mating gnats). Here's what I found: - Four traits of lek mating include males only supplying genes (and having no parental responsibilities), males are in areas for mating (called leks), males do not control females' access to essential resources, and females choose which male to mate with in the lek. As well, it happens in a variety of species, including insects, birds, and mammals.

    I could've continued, but I judged that I had my answer: Male gnats form swarms with other male gnats, to improve their odds of attracting female gnats and mating with them. Too, though individual swarms only last a few days, they are an important food source for other animals.

    Continued in Part 4

    1. I have a friend/colleague who is a Biology professor on special assignment with NSF and well-published in cell biology. I asked her if she had heard of the journal Cell or Cell Press. Her reply: "Yes, and absolutely! It's second only to the top tier journals like Science and Nature."

      You found a good one.

    2. That's good to know, plus your friend sounds like she's definitely qualified to say. Gracias.

      As an aside, I just submitted "Cell" to Media Bias Fact Check (, for inclusion in its list of "pro-science" sources.

      One last point (unrelated): The URL for Media Bias Fact Check is I regret listing its top-level domain as .org in the post I made last night.

    3. That's correct: Cell is a VERY reputable source with a long, distinguished history. (I'm surprised it wasn't in Media Bias list.)

  9. Part 4

    After that, I turned to the next question, of why starlings murmurate. So, I did a search for it (why starlings murmurate), and got several promising results:

    * - They do it for several reasons, including safety from predators, keeping warm, and sharing information.
    * - They form huge flocks, likely for reasons of safety. And, they do so in the evening (before sunset). And, they can be seen (in Britain) during the fall and winter.
    * (it has a pop-up window partway through that demands that readers accept spam from National Geographic) - Their murmurations can be a very impressive sight to see, it happens in the northern hemisphere during the fall and winter, and they do it for up to 45 minutes each day. Too, no other bird species murmurates like they do. And, it enables them to communicate with other birds in the flock quite rapidly. That said, no one knows why they fly around in flocks for that kind of time: It potentially attracts predators (though the protection hypothesis does have some evidence to back it up), plus the hypothesis that they do it to stay warm isn't supported by evidence. However, as they are rather intelligent (ones in captivity can easily pick locks), their murmurations may well be a form of dancing.
    * - Much is not known about why they murmurate, though evidence suggests that it's about defending themselves from predators (since it's about strength in numbers, and about protection for each individual member). That, and it lets the members of the flock quickly send messages warning others that predators have been sighted, so that they can all act promptly to defend themselves.
    * (originally posted in The Conversation) - Each starling pays attention to its seven closest neighbors while flying together, which helps them stay together and to respond more quickly to messages. Three possible explanations for this behavior are to keep warm, to protect themselves, and to share information about feeding locations. This summary of an article at Wiley ( that this article refers to discusses evidence that backs up the hypothesis for how birds assemble together to share information on where they can find food. As well, another article at ( which the first one went over referred to a study indicating that starlings murmurate because of protection (including communicating with other members about danger, and also to confuse predators), though it indicated that there were other reasons for them to do this
    * - Flying in murmurations allows starlings to communicate with each other quite rapidly, individual ones pay attention to their seven closest neighbors in the flock, they fly in murmurations to discourage predators with their numbers and to also confuse them, and they may be sharing information with others in the murmuration.

    I've looked at six sources on this. And, based on that, I think I can safely say that starlings fly in murmurations for protection (both because of safety in numbers and to confuse predators), though communication with other starlings may be a reason, as might keeping warm.

  10. Part 5 (last part)

    Second question (what's a good search strategy to find the answer): What I did was I found reputable / credible sites or sources of information, I read about them and took some notes (to remember), and I tried to find other sources to check on the answers I found. And, if I read something intriguing, I followed up by doing a search for that.

    Third question (Do they murmurate for the same reason?): No. Gnats swarm to mate, while starlings fly in murmurations for protection (and, possibly, to share information and to stay warm).

  11. Replies
    1. I hadn't seen the NYTimes post--super interesting. Nice find.

    2. I too saw the NYT article and was struck by the discussion of collective correlation, not as strong in insects as in starlings (the shape and dynamics of the gnat and the starling swarms in the challenge video differed extensively), and the phrase
      “ Each starling in a murmuration is thus linked, no matter how far apart….like starlings in a flock, midges in a swarm are collectively correlated.”

      It sounds creepily like quantum entanglement or Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance”.

      One of the links in that article to The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
      “The change in the behavioral state of one animal affects and is affected by that of all other animals in the group, no matter how large the group is. … flocks behave as critical systems, poised to respond maximally to environmental perturbations.”

      I wondered [Are insect swarms related to fish schools?]
      The boffins seem to be on this one.
      Interview with Ed Yong (whose work has previously been discussed):
      And an article by Yong:
      in which the possibility of convergent evolution of algorithms is raised.
      models schools of fish and flocks of birds.

    3. "A non-negative function V(t,x) for which the pair (V(t,X(t)),Ft) is a supermartingale for some random process X up to the instant t( cf. also Martingale)."

      "The weak point of a genetic algorithm is that it often suffers from so-called premature convergence, which is caused by an early homogenization of genetic material in the population. This means that no valuable exploration can be performed anymore."

      Encyclopedia of Mathematics
      wiki, Convergence (evolutionary computing)
      used your phrase: convergent evolution of algorithms
      13_1_20_ 8—19_5_18_16
      a bing look
      swisscows - nice that they have a preview feature
      I am reminded, baby steps, fishy non sequitur

    4. Ahhhhh….I now know how Pandora felt. “Lyapunov stochastic function” rang an unpleasant bell and I’ll have to troll my bookshelves for it.

      The phrase “convergent evolution of algorithms” was from Yong’s article in Wired. Here’s the context: He discusses similar swarming behavior in disparate species and says “Biologists are used to convergent evolution, like the streamlining of dolphins and sharks or echolocation in bats and whales—animals from separate lineages have similar adaptations. But convergent evolution of algorithms?” I took the word algorithm here to mean something like “behavioral procedures”.

      (It’s interesting that computer science has adopted terminology from biology. Actually, just yesterday I was in a meeting in which a bit of confusion ensued because the CSC/AI folks and the rest of us differed in what we think a “white paper” is. I educated myself on that newfangled usage, but it is not recognized by the OED.)

      Yong includes a photo of mackerel forming a torus to confuse predators. It looks so perfect, with clearly defined edges, similar to the starling swarms. My recollection of seeing fish schools led me to ask: Is swarming behavior related to schooling in fish? Are the same brain or instinctual mechanisms at play in the two? Then I thought of what I know about monarch butterflies and seeing a sheepdog demo at an Irish farm.

    5. ahhhh, Pdora…
      would this qualify as an annoying bell? are those gnats in the video
      "The term originated when government papers were coded by color to indicate distribution,
      with white designated for public acce"

      papel blanco
      albino SERP
      That White Paper Guy
      pale wiki

    6. forgot my 2 "s"s in 'acce'ss in the previous post — if only the lid to P's box had been secured with Crazy Glue®…
      recent…seems random… in a serene way

    7. sickness, death and many other unspecified evils… ohand (amirite) Wrath, Gluttony, Greed, Envy, Sloth, Pride, Yale and Lust
      am still looking for a gnat beach or mosquito coast
      yada, yada,yaleda
      a LARGE storage jar
      just looking

    8. That is totally cool. I love how small farmers treat their animals. I will be in Suzanna’s neck of the woods later this summer.

      Those sheep came together only because of an external stimulus which seemed to be Suzanna’s voice, or maybe it was the memory of grazing in the garden. How much of this is learned behavior and how much is a herding instinct? The dogs didn’t seem to be helping much. The sheep I observed were huddled together and moving as one, clearly in response to a dog.

  12. off topic, but are you familiar with this push with AI?
    NFT, possible use

  13. [Why do gnats and starlings murmurate] finds most excellent article at
    "Not a perfect order, but something more than chaos.
    That impression of order is accurate, according to scientists who study such swarms: In the movements of midges, one can find the mathematical signatures of properties beyond what one would expect from a cloud of bugs. As a group, they behave like liquids or gases, and even exhibit the characteristics of “criticality,” that uncanny stage of matter at which radical transformation from one state to another occurs in a blink."

    ..."before theoretical physicist at La Sapienza University in Rome, turned their attention to midges, they studied starling flocks. Using high-speed video cameras to measure the trajectory of every bird in a murmuration, as starling flocks are called, the researchers discovered in 2009 that when one starling changes direction or speed, so do the birds nearest them, and in turn the birds nearest those. Each starling in a murmuration is thus linked, no matter how far apart.

    The Why part for midges is that its only males that swarm to attract the fair sex. Apparently they mate in midair.

    Similarly starlings "The potential benefits of swarming are evident in murmurations, whose synchronized twists and turns may help starlings to evade predators."

    THe article now gets really complicated.

    The murmur word is ancient according to Wiktionary:
    Etymology 1350-1400; Medieval Latin murmuratio (“murmuring, grumbling”). The "starling" sense is probably derived from the sound of the very large groups that starlings form at dusk.
    and says this about 'murmur':
    Meaning "a low sound continuously repeated" (of bees, streams, etc.) is by c. 1400. That of "softly spoken words" is from 1670s.

  14. Replies
    1. His fame has spread. Yesterday I found myself with a murmuration of AI folks and one of them announced, “I’m working on the NON sentient version of…” which elicited a few giggles.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. perhaps this was all AI generated‽, in an attempted to appear more flawed & humon-like… but still an intriguing diversion
      (btw,noted you murmured/ticked Dan's vocabulary usage… & he used your fish ball example…seething,symbiotic sardine swarm alliteration)
      Wired, 6/14
      when Goo dismisses, such intrigue
      the Vatican weighs in…
      already defined, sorta

      a couple other bits…
      "The problem is that no one knows how the AI programs do it."
      X, the name is Ray…
      AI is a battlefield
      spotting AI
      "LaMDA, which is shorthand for Language Modeling for Dialogue Applications"
      Lemoine honeymoon

      the unexpected/unintended consequences…
      a view
      tried AI in CellPress search