Throughout 2020, a massive locust plague threatened food security in southwest Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, and eastern Africa. This plague is composed of swarms that originate as groups of juvenile locusts called hopper bands (incapable of flight). Hopper bands contain up to millions of locusts, all walking and foraging in apparent coordination. Prof Weinburd and Prof Bernoff lead a research group whose aim is to study the aggregation, propagation, and feeding of these hopper bands by understanding the link between individual and collective behaviors.
Numerous experimental and field studies hope to inform effective interventions (mostly pesticides) by examining locusts’ social behavior. However, these studies have either been on a macroscopic scale (e.g. distance traveled of a hopper band over a day) or in a laboratory setting with only a handful of insects (e.g. fifty rather than millions as observed in the field). One notable exception is the work of locust expert Dr. Jerome Buhl (U of Adelaide) who has recorded video footage of individual locusts marching in hopper bands in the field. Last summer, we collaborated with Dr. Buhl and undergraduates in the HMC Data Science REU to extract trajectory data from this video footage via motion tracking software. This represents the first time-series data set for locusts in a hopper band in the field.
Meanwhile, we have built an agent-based model for locust hoppers that incorporates social interactions to explain coherence and propagation. Specifically, we include alignment with neighbors, long-range attraction, and short-range repulsion. These are typical effects for swarming models, but for locusts only alignment with neighbors is quantified in the literature. This summer we aim to use our trajectory data derived from Dr. Buhl’s videos to establish parameters for this model that optimally reflect observed behavior and validate its mechanisms.
Profs Weinburd and Bernoff are partners in an international collaboration of mathematicians, data scientists, and field ecologists. Among them, a prominent locust biologist Dr. Jerome Buhl studies locust outbreaks in Australia and has provided us video field data. Last summer, our student researchers extracted numerical trajectories via motion tracking. This summer we are excited to leverage this field data to inform and validate our locust model.
You will work in a group of three students on related projects and will meet our collaborators to learn how your research fits into the larger program. Our students often continue their work in a senior thesis, present their findings at conferences, and may coauthor resulting publications.